Until now, US-Iraqi efforts to win the support of Sunni Arab countries have resulted largely in empty smiles and handshakes.
But when Iraq attends a third summit with its neighbors and international parties including the United Nations in Kuwait Tuesday, the US hopes to see Sunni Arabs, including Saudi Arabia, open genuine channels of cooperation with Baghdad. A key part of the US-Iraqi sales pitch: Iraq's Shiite-led government has taken on the country's powerful Shiite militias, demonstrating its willingness to crack down on sectarianism.
"Iraq is really now starting to find its footing internally, and it needs to have neighbors that are helping it to find its footing inside the Arab world," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after meeting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad Sunday. On her way to the region Saturday, she said, "At some point the Arab states need to take yes for an answer."
The Bush administration recognizes that Iraq's political stability will require the cooperation of neighbors, perhaps even some kind of security entente, and in its waning months is more actively pushing regional diplomacy. But the neighbors may still be too busy fighting proxy wars in Iraq to think about cooperation, some analysts believe. Saudi Arabia, with one eye on Iran and suspicious of the Maliki government's pro-Tehran elements, continues to support Sunni parties and groups unhappy with the weak Shiite-dominated government.
For its part, Iran is juggling numerous objectives in Iraq, from seeing a stable but relatively weak Shiite government maintain power to taking whatever steps might help rid it of the sizable US military presence next door.
"The Arab regimes may have been relieved to see Mr. Maliki order an offensive against the Shiite militias, but they are still fearful," says Hazim al-Shameri, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "The fact is the Sunni Arabs don't have good relations with Shiite Iran, and now they find themselves with an Iraq governed by Shiites and building close relations with Iran."
Secretary Rice has ruled out a formal meeting with her Iranian counterpart in the margins of the Kuwait summit – which will also include a sideline discussion of the political crisis in Lebanon where Iran-backed Hizbullah is pitted against US-supported forces. A similar gathering in Sharm el-Sheik a year ago included lower-level US-Iran contacts that led to meetings in Baghdad between the two countries' ambassadors.
The US nevertheless hopes to see Tehran pursue the more cooperative stance in Iraq that it appeared ready to test out a year ago. If nothing else, the Sunni neighbors should realize that the best way to offset the influence of Shiite Iran is to support the Maliki government and become more influential themselves, Washington believes.
The US is also hoping some Sunni countries will announce that they are ready to open embassies in Baghdad – though the success of such initiatives has been patchy in the past. Egypt sent an ambassador to Baghdad soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein, but he was assassinated.
Iraq, for its part, is looking for promises of debt reduction from its neighbors.
Some are hopeful that Maliki's offensive against Shiite militias – a campaign begun in late March and continuing in Basra and in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood – will pay off among Iraq's Arab neighbors.
"The events of Basra have bought Maliki some street cred," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He can go to Kuwait and say, 'See, I'm not some Iranian toy,' whereas a year ago the Sunnis saw him strictly as an Iranian agent with Sunni blood on his hands."
In fact, part of the point of dispatching the two top US officials in Iraq – Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Commander of US forces Gen. David Petraeus – to Riyadh last week was to impress upon the Saudis the significance of Maliki's actions, both domestically and on Iraqi Shiite ties with Iran.
Still, some Iraqis say the squeamish Arab regimes have themselves to blame for Iran's unrivaled influence in Iraq. Iran has cemented economic ties with Iraq, especially in the south and in the oil sector, and is also involved in development in the Kurdish region.
"The Arabs complain that Iran is growing in its presence and importance, but the Arabs have their share of responsibility because they have left the Iraqi door open to Iran," says Hamid al-Tamimi Baghdad University's College of Political Science. "Iran has an ambassador and an embassy, Iran is making economic agreements, but they [the Sunni regimes] have not done these things. The Iranians are making friends here," he adds, "but all the while the Arabs are far away."
The Iranians are playing several games at the same time, analysts say. They want a stable Iraq, but they also want a weak Iraq that can never again threaten Iran as Saddam Hussein's Iraq did. They are arming the Shiite militias and groups fighting the Iraqi Army, but their aim may be more to build up the Shiites in the case of a return to civil war, analysts say, than to weaken the government.
"Iran's policy isn't particularly coherent," says Mr. Clawson. "They are doing things to help Maliki, but they are doing things that undermine him at the same time."
Some Iraqis say Iraq has become caught in the cross hairs of a bigger US-Iran fight. "Iraq is a battlefield between the US and Iran," says Dr. Timimi. "The Iraqis don't have an interest in this war, but there is nothing we can do to contain it; we are the weak party of the three."
But the Iranians are seen to be adjusting their approach to the US as conditions change in Iraq. A year ago they thought American political pressure at home would force a drawdown of US troops, and they were taking action to encourage that step. But having lost that immediate hope, the Iranians may be more prepared to cooperate.
Despite some optimism for the Kuwait meeting, some observers say Sunni Arab support for Iraq may remain on hold until two things happen: Iraq's Sunnis gain more political power through upcoming elections this fall and in December 2009, and conditions improve enough for large numbers of Sunni exiles to return. In the meantime, Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors may remain preoccupied with other factors.
"The Saudis' first interest is in leveling the balance they see is now weighed towards the Shiites, and Iran," says Timimi.
Others say the Sunni Arabs are torn between supporting the US, and rejecting an American vision for the Middle East that has brought upheaval.
"These are American allies; they want to walk the American line," says Mr. Shameri. "But they also fear that the social and political upheaval Iraq is experiencing could end up affecting their regimes." Citing the example of a Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia demanding political rights, he adds, "Their own stability is their first interest."