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Gates, Rice try to win Sunni backing for Iraq

On a rare joint trip, they tell Arab allies at a meeting in Egypt that Baghdad can serve as a bulwark against Iran.

August 01, 2007|Peter Spiegel and Noha El Hennawy | Special to The Times

SHARM EL SHEIK, EGYPT — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Tuesday pleaded with Arab allies to shore up beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, though the Sunni Muslim regimes have accused his Shiite-dominated government of pursuing a sectarian agenda targeting Iraq's Sunnis.

On the first stop of a rare joint visit, the two senior Bush administration officials sought to assure leaders from several Persian Gulf countries gathered at this Red Sea resort that it was in their interest to see Maliki succeed, arguing that Iraq could serve as a bulwark against Shiite-led Iran.

Rice and Gates attempted to assuage the Sunni leaders' fears that Maliki's regime is becoming a client of Tehran, insisting that it has shown signs of moving against Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq.

The two said there had been an improvement in the record of Iraqi security forces, said to be infiltrated by Shiite militias, and noted that Iraq had not opposed the U.S. detention of alleged Iranian operatives.

"All of Iraq's neighbors could do more to stabilize Iraq," Rice said at a news conference with Gates after daylong meetings ending in talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "These states know that if the determined enemies are successful, then this whole region is going to be chaotic."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that his government and other Sunni regimes were already working to stabilize Iraq.

"The Egyptian [and gulf] Arab commitment is always to help a unified Iraq to reach that point of full stability," Aboul Gheit said at a news conference with Rice earlier in the day. "That we have been trying to do for four years."

The two U.S. Cabinet secretaries came bearing new multibillion-dollar arms deals for both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, although the Saudi deal -- which a senior U.S. Defense official said is expected to be worth at least $20 billion over 10 years -- has not been finalized.

But Bush administration officials insisted that the arms deals were not intended as sweeteners to encourage Saudi and Egyptian backing for the Iraqi government.

"What these arms sales agreements are about are the long-term relationships we have with these countries and our long-term interest in their security and them feeling secure," said a senior Defense official on Gates' plane. "Iraq is one piece of that. Iran is one piece of that. There are other factors as well. These are 10-year agreements."

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that the deals illustrate U.S. adventurism in the Middle East and are a means of making money for American corporations.

"Washington has taken such a move to save the U.S. arms manufacturing companies from bankruptcy," Mottaki said.

Rice and Gates arrived in Jidda late Tuesday for meetings with the Saudi royal family.

The Saudi talks are central to the Bush administration's push. Iraqi lawmakers and a senior U.S. military officer in Baghdad said last month that Saudis make up nearly half of the foreign fighters in Iraq and are thought to have carried out more suicide bombings than any other nationality.

Senior U.S. officials say the Saudi government has made improvements in blocking its citizens from entering Iraq to join the insurgency. But they acknowledge that it could do more to control the country's borders and use its influence on Sunni tribes in Iraq to increase support for Maliki's government.

On Tuesday, the senior Defense official rejected reports that Saudi officials were backing Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, saying that the Pentagon had no such intelligence and that such inferences were "overdrawn."

Still, officials acknowledged that the Saudis continue to view Maliki's government as highly susceptible to Iranian influence and that the U.S. had a long way to go to convince them and other Sunni Arab allies that Baghdad's leadership could be trusted.

"I think their concern is that it's more of a bridge than a bulwark" against Iran, the Defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "One of the challenges that I think the two secretaries have is to make the case that in fact [Maliki] is more an obstacle [to the Iranians] than perhaps the Saudis believe."

During Tuesday's meetings, Gates said, some gulf allies expressed concern that the political atmosphere in the United States could lead to a near-term drawdown of troops in Iraq.

The Pentagon chief said he sought to reassure the Sunni Arab allies by emphasizing that even those advocating a quick withdrawal would seek to ensure that any Iraq strategy change wouldn't destabilize the region.

Gates said the issue of a troop drawdown in Iraq was specifically raised by the Egyptians but he believed that others in the region shared those concerns.

"We are in a position to say there is a growing body of opinion in Washington, wherever you are on the issue of withdrawal, that whatever we do next in Iraq needs to be done very carefully, very thoughtfully, and with a view of the long-term stability of the region," he said.

Spiegel is a Times staff writer and El Hennawy a special correspondent.

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