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U.S. Pushes Neighbors to Support Fledgling Regime

November 12, 2005|Solomon Moore and Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — As a diplomatic event, the funeral of Saudi King Fahd this summer was a command performance for dozens of countries around the globe.

Although most nations sent high-level delegations, Iraq outdid them all. It sent three -- one each for the country's Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish communities. They even took separate planes.

Aside from raising eyebrows, the episode served as a public example of how Iraq's ethnic and sectarian divisions complicate the country's efforts to build ties with the Arab world.

The divisions even encompass the Foreign Ministry, where Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis have vied for control of Iraq's foreign policy. Some external affairs officials have questioned their colleagues' loyalty, accusing one another of being agents of Iran or Baathist sympathizers from Saddam Hussein's regime.

With many of Iraq's neighbors angry about the U.S.-led war in the country and uneasy about the democratic experiment unfolding in their midst, a U.S. diplomatic push now underway to win greater support for Iraq from countries in the region is a formidable task, those following the effort say.

"It's a crucial part of our overall strategy," said James Jeffrey, senior advisor on Iraq to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and part of the current diplomatic effort. Iraq's Arab neighbors "are the key to stabilization, first for Iraq and then for the region," Jeffrey said.

The U.S. campaign is focused on persuading Iraq's mostly Sunni Arab neighbors to nudge their Iraqi brethren to join the political process, yet also to reach out to Iraq's Shiite Muslims and Kurds, who are politically dominant in the new Iraq after decades of subjugation under Hussein, a Sunni.

These Sunni-ruled nations, already suspicious of Shiite Iran, find the emergence of a second Shiite-dominated government in the region deeply unsettling.

U.S. officials say the administration's message to these worried neighbors has been simple: If they don't reach out to Iraq's Kurds and Shiites, the only alternative for those Iraqis would be Iran. Tehran already has strong links to major Iraqi Shiite political parties and is believed to supply arms and money to Shiite militias in the southern part of the country.

"I'm not sure we're convincing them, but they understand we're serious," said a senior administration official who declined to be identified because of the subject's sensitivity. "It's a question of getting them off the fence."

Rice is continuing the push this week with stops in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Rice said that during her stop in Jidda, she would press the Saudis to do more to encourage Iraqi Sunnis to join the political process and vote in the December election.

"It's very high on my agenda," she told reporters accompanying her on the trip. "Obviously, we want as much Sunni participation as possible in the next election, and the Saudis have a lot of contacts -- tribal and other contacts -- that I'd hope they'd use and would press the Sunnis to be involved and be involved in a constructive way."

At a news conference in Baghdad on Friday, she urged Arab countries to establish diplomatic relations here. "There are many embassies and ambassadors here, but not a lot from the Arab world," she noted.

Rice's meetings follow recent visits by other senior U.S. officials to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to encourage greater political and economic support for Iraq's beleaguered new government. During Senate testimony last month, Rice said the administration was also considering trying to open direct ties with Iran via the two countries' embassies in Baghdad.

U.S. and Iraqi officials suspect that many insurgent groups draw financial and logistical support from groups in neighboring countries, including Syria and Saudi Arabia. Iraqi and U.S. officials have complained that those governments are doing too little to crack down on insurgent elements within their borders.

The U.S. is also trying to pry loose billions of dollars for Iraq's reconstruction that Arab countries pledged more than two years ago at a donor's conference in Madrid. U.S. officials complain that of about $1.8 billion offered by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, only $75 million -- from Kuwait -- has so far arrived.

Achieving greater cooperation between Iraq and its neighbors is complicated by a series of factors, including a dearth of routine diplomatic contacts.

Many Arab nations have withheld full diplomatic ties as a sign of their displeasure with the U.S.-led military presence, and Iraq has ambassadors in only a few of the 23 nations that make up the Arab world. Only Jordan has fully staffed its embassy in Baghdad, Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi said.

Part of the problem is security in Baghdad. Earlier this year, Al Qaeda militants kidnapped and executed an Egyptian envoy. The Jordanian Embassy was bombed in August 2003, and an Arab League delegation preparing for the visit last month of the group's secretary-general, Amr Mousa, was ambushed on the capital's outskirts. Three security guards were slain.

The divisions within Iraq's Foreign Ministry merely add to the difficulties of creating meaningful ties. Iraqi diplomats acknowledged that the nation's foreign policy is still being contested internally.

"One of the main obstacles keeping us from reestablishing relationships with other Arab countries is the Foreign Ministry itself," acknowledged Safia Taleb Souhail, Iraq's outspoken ambassador to Egypt. "Some of our diplomats are Saddamists, others just want to have a job and then there are a few who really believe in the new Iraq."

Moore reported from Baghdad and Marshall from Washington.

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