Iraq's neighbors weigh next steps after regional conference

Participating countries – including Syria and Iran – now face the test of fulfilling promises of security and economic aid.

Commitments to help Iraq with security and economic needs and to sponsor a conference on reconciliation are among the signs of a grudging acceptance by Sunni Arab neighbors of the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki.

That, and an apparent policy switch by the United States to try to draw Iraq's neighbors – including Syria and Iran – into an energized diplomatic process, may be the biggest accomplishments of the conference at this Red Sea resort last week, analysts say.

One gauge to watch: Does Vice President Dick Cheney build on results of Sharm el-Sheik as he tours the Middle East this week, or will a more muscular approach suggest ongoing conflict over diplomacy's role in dealing with Iraq?

More important still will be the response of the Maliki government in using any momentum from the meeting to press ahead on long-awaited political reforms and reconciliation. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) or Maine, accompanying other US lawmakers in Baghdad over the weekend, said she did not feel a sense of urgency from her Iraqi counterparts.

Last week, Iraq's neighbors went beyond the usual communiqué and verbal support by agreeing to set up working groups on border security, refugees, and energy supply. The Arab League also agreed to organize a meeting to help bridge Iraq's sectarian divides, though no date was set.

None of this means that Mr. Maliki's government is out of the woods, or that the conference was the kind of turning point in Iraq's relations with its neighbors that occurred with Bosnia or Afghanistan, for example. Suspicions remain high among the region's Sunni leaders, many of whom made clear that they are still waiting to see better treatment of Iraq's populations, especially minority Sunnis.

The best hope may be that the two-day conference was a "first step" toward bringing Iraq's neighbors on board to stabilize it, analysts say. But some wonder if Maliki's weakness and the troubled US surge could stymie progress.

"Its unlikely that one short meeting can make much of a difference," says James Dobbins, director of security studies at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Va., and a former US diplomat. "On the other hand, the Bush administration's recognition, at long last, that all neighboring states need to be engaged and involved in stabilizing Iraq is the beginning of wisdom, and perhaps the start of a concerted effort to do so."

The US is emphasizing its concern by dispatching Mr. Cheney to the region on the heels of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit. Cheney leaves Tuesday for visits to Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates – and, of particular interest, Saudi Arabia.

Long a pillar of US support, Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah has been charting a more independent foreign policy spurred by alarm at the rise of Iranian influence. Earlier this year, the king was instrumental in fashioning a Palestinian power-sharing accord that includes Hamas, before going on to declare the US action in Iraq an "illegal foreign occupation." He then snubbed Maliki just days before the conference, refusing to see him on his visit to the Saudi kingdom.

Driving the uncharacteristic actions in part is fear of a leadership vacuum, experts say. "In this case [at the Sharm el-Sheik meeting], there was a weakened US administration and an even weaker Iraqi one meeting with skeptical and alarmed regional powers, none of whom have great confidence in the wisdom or capacity of either government," says Mr. Dobbins.

But others say that may have driven home the realization that the US won't be in Iraq forever.

"It's useful to have people in the area see we're at the beginning of the endgame, that the US isn't likely to be there all that much longer," says David Newton, a former US ambassador to Iraq. Pointing to the Saudis, he adds, "they realize there's more pressure on them now to start dealing with the situation."

But diplomats with experience in conflict resolution say the international community has a long way to go before doing for Iraq what was accomplished in other recent cases.

"The Sharm el-Sheik meeting is a long way from the much more successful effort to engage Afghanistan's neighbors," which took the form of the Bonn Conference at the end of 2001, says Rand's Dobbins. He notes that the Bonn meetings, in which he participated, lasted 11 days, with the participants working together behind closed doors, allowing informal consultations. The main participants – including Iran and the US – also came with "largely coincident agendas."

Today, the US and Iran are both key players regarding Iraq, but their relations are much more antagonistic than in 2001.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle lies with the Iraqis. "[T]he fact remains that everything is conditional on the performance of the Iraqi government, and that's not very encouraging," says Ambassador Newton, now at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

At Sharm el-Sheik, Mr. Maliki said Iraq is making progress. "Any rational observer ... would agree that our capabilities to confront terrorism are growing day by day at the level of the Army, the people, and the police," he said.

But, Newton says, echoing others, "There's really no evidence the central government is able to do anything."

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