Prospects for Mideast cooperation on Iraq

How vested interests, trade, and mixed views on the US create a political and economic tangle for Iraq's neighbors.

By some estimates, up to $60 million in cash flows from Saudi Arabia and Iran into Iraq each month in an attempt to influence the direction of a key but unsettled - and malleable - country.

In the process, political affiliations are solidified, arms and other trappings of power are procured, and ideological leanings and transnational ties are enhanced.

The money flow is just one example of the importance of Iraq's relations with its many - sometimes powerful - neighbors, relations that are coming under growing scrutiny as Iraq moves toward taking back control of its own affairs beginning June 30.

Not only are neighboring countries jockeying for influence in the new Iraq, but they are, in particular cases, playing a delicate game of stymying America's long-term influence even while carefully safeguarding Iraq's stability.

"The neighboring countries contemplate either an Iraq that is a democratic success or chaotic and breaking up, and they want something in between," says Faleh Jabar, an Iraqi sociologist at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP). "They don't want Iraq to become an exemplary case that enhances the US in the region, but they don't want it to fail either, because of the security problems that would bring."

Iraq's neighbors, from Syria to Saudi Arabia and Iran, have been suspected of transgressions over the course of the year-old US occupation, from allowing Islamic extremists to cross borders to fight, to harboring wanted insurgents and peddling political influence among the countries' parties and religious factions.

But as Iraq's transition from occupation to an interim government before elections draws closer, neighbors are being asked to play a stronger role in helping Iraq move forward. UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, in Iraq to try to come up with a government by the end of the month, is pressing the idea of a conference among Iraq and its neighboring countries to set relations on a positive footing.

Turkey is one neighbor that is unthreatened by the prospect - which it now sees weakened - of American success in Iraq, some analysts say. "Turkey itself has been promoted as a modern secular country with a growing democracy, and so it would not be bothered if Iraq went down that path," says Bulent Aliriza, who heads the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

What Turkey most cares about is that Iraq remain intact, Mr. Aliriza says - with no Kurdish autonomy to encourage the aspirations of Turkey's Kurds - and that it resume its place as a stable trade partner. Those are the primary concerns of Jordan as well, whose King Abdullah discussed worry about Iraq's territorial integrity at a White House visit last week.

But it is three other influential neighbors - Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria - that are seen by some experts as the most meddlesome in Iraq's affairs. The three are the most determined to augment their political influence, experts say, while being the most wary of a successful, pro-US democracy.

"Syria and Iran really are the bad boys of the region," says Amatzia Baram, a Middle East historian at the University of Haifa currently at USIP. "Saudi Arabia needs to make a greater effort to be helpful on Iraq, and I think it's possible.... But the the other two are much more complicated."

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni kingdom anxious at the prospect of Iraq's majority Shiites taking control from longtime Sunni rulers, stands accused of allowing Sunni radicals to infiltrate across a porous border to help resist both the US and Shiite advances.

"Traditionally the Saudis need a release valve to take the pressure of the radical Islamists off of their internal affairs, and recently Iraq has served as that release," says Matthew Levitt, a former Mideast counterterrorism expert for the FBI now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "We need the Saudis to do more about controlling their border," he adds, "just as we need the Syrians to do more about turning over funding that is passing through there."

Mr. Jabar, the Iraqi, agrees, noting that a Saudi intelligence official recently told him that the Saudis view the promotion of Wahhabism in Iraq - the form of the Sunni practice that is Saudi Arabia's state religion - as the only way to head off a complete Shiite takeover. "I told them my view that this is the shortest way to disaster," Jabar says, "but the flow of money and influence continues."

Still, Saudi Arabia has begun moving seriously against extremist interests, such as Al Qaeda at home, and has stressed its antiterror cooperation with the US. That leads some, like Mr. Baram, to conclude that cooperation on Iraq can be won. Iran, Iraq's Shiite Muslim neighbor to the east, is more complicated. The US showed early signs of warming to cooperation with Iran after its influence with Iraqi Shiites became clear, but those feelers appear to have been pulled back since Iran's influence with Iraq's more radical Shiites has become apparent.

Baram says the US must remember that Iraq's eastern neighbor is really two Irans - the radical Islamic one and the more moderate, pro-democracy Iran - and that both are interested in Iraq's future, while not necessarily in the same outcome.

Others note that Iran was particularly helpful in postwar Afghanistan and should not be dismissed as a force for stability in Iraq. James Dobbins, who represented the Bush administration in Afghanistan, believes Iran could promote the pro-stability, antiterrorist stance he says it took there.

The kind of regional conference UN envoy Brahimi is promoting - like the one for Afghanistan where Mr. Dobbins witnessed a cooperative Iran - could also help in Iraq's case, experts say, although they insist it is not a new idea. CSIS's Aliriza notes that Turkey has been quietly gathering regional foreign ministers for periodic discussions on Iraq for almost a year.

But most experts agree that a regional conference would not be successful if it were seen as a tool for implementing the American project in the Middle East.

"The Brahimi idea is the type of thing you do whether it's going to work or not, because states can do together what they can't do alone," says Mr. Levitt. "But it certainly won't work if it is seen as giving legitimacy to what the US is doing." Pointing to the Iraqi prisoner scandal that has sunk America's reputation below already historic lows, Levitt adds, "The timing is very bad in that sense."

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