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Arab Response To US-Iraq Plan Seen Belying True Sentiment January 17, 2007

Posted by notapundit in World News.
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By Anne Gearan
An AP NEWS ANALYSIS

KUWAIT CITY (AP)–The carefully worded encouragement that Arab allies are offering for U.S. President George W. Bush’s new Iraq strategy belies deep suspicion among the U.S.’ few real friends in the region that Iraq may already be a lost cause.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made sales calls the past several days in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, presenting the U.S. plan and prospecting for tangible help from Iraq’s neighbors. What she collected instead were polite versions of a blunt message: Good luck with that.

Eight Arab foreign ministers joined Rice in a vague statement Tuesday that welcomed a U.S. commitment to defend “the territorial integrity of Iraq and to ensure a successful, fair and inclusive political process that engages all Iraqi communities and guarantees the stability of the country.”

The host, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheik Mohammed Al Sabah, was plain about the stakes. Asked if it was already too late to stop the rising cycle of Sunni-Shiite killings in Iraq, he had a succinct reply.

“Nine foreign ministers are meeting in Kuwait today to precisely prevent Iraq from sliding into a civil war,” al-Sabah said. “I think that speaks volumes.”

The group met on the same day that the U.N. said more than 34,000 Iraqi civilians died last year in sectarian violence. An explosion outside a Baghdad university as students were heading home for the day killed at least 65 people in the deadliest of several attacks on predominantly Shiite areas.

At Rice’s earlier stops, key Sunni Arab allies endorsed the goals of Bush’s plan, and expressed hopes that it will work. Almost in the same breath, however, many suggested that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad cannot or will not follow through.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal was perhaps the most expansive, but his doubts were obvious.

“We agree with the full objectives set by the new plan, the strategy,” Saud said earlier Tuesday, following a briefing session with Rice. “This has objectives that… if it were applied, it will solve the problems facing Iraq.”

So far so good for Rice, but Saud wasn’t finished. He went on to pin success squarely on the Iraq government, saying there is only so much that any outsider can do. He implied that others cannot help the Iraqis if they will not help themselves.

“We cannot be Iraqis more than Iraqis,” Saud said. “Other countries can help, but the burden, the whole burden and taking a decision will be the Iraqis’.”

Many in the Sunni Arab world profoundly distrust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, believing it is serving the interests of Shiite Iran and has no intention of giving Iraq’s minority Sunnis much stake in the oil-rich nation’s future.

Rice knew that going in, and acknowledged it in a session with reporters traveling with her in Kuwait Tuesday.

“There are concerns about whether the Maliki government is prepared to take an evenhanded, nonsectarian path here,” Rice said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Bush’s plan depends heavily on al-Maliki to use Iraqi troops to crack down on militants from both sides and meet a series of benchmarks to promote reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.

The Bush strategy has met with strong skepticism across the Mideast, where many have predicted that even with more soldiers, the U.S. will fail to break the cycle of violence.

Rice’s trip began with an emphasis on rejuvenating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which the Arab power brokers have long urged the U.S. to do. But the move was widely portrayed in the Arab press as simply an attempt to change the subject.

“The Americans are trying to get out of the Baghdad bottleneck and they are looking for agent players in managing their conflict with Tehran to make their new strategy in Iraq successful,” the Saudi newspaper Al Jazirah said Monday.

Ahead of Rice’s visit, there were deep doubts across the region that U.S. troops, or the Shiite-led government, would tackle Shiite militias that many in the Sunni-dominated Arab world see as the chief threat to Iraq.

Al-Maliki has resisted U.S. pressure in the past to move against militias, but before Bush rolled out his plan al-Maliki pledged to crack down on political ally Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are openly concerned about the growing Shiite Muslim influence, stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The fear is that the hardline Tehran government will dominate the Mideast and give rise to more extremism, jeopardizing a Mideast settlement and threatening those nations.

Rice has tried to use fear of Iran as a lever to draw support for the U.S. plan in Iraq, with some success.

The nine-way statement issued Tuesday contained a coded reference to Iran, which was not part of the group’s discussions.

“Relations among all countries should be based on mutual respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states and on the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations,” the group’s statement said.

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