News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqIn pushing Arab support for Iraq, Rice seeks counterweight...

In pushing Arab support for Iraq, Rice seeks counterweight to Iran

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ImageAFP: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice next week follows through on a "diplomatic surge" to involve its Arab allies in rebuilding Iraq, as part of US efforts to counter Iran's sway there.

ImageWASHINGTON (AFP) — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice next week follows through on a "diplomatic surge" to involve its Arab allies in rebuilding Iraq, as part of US efforts to counter Iran's sway there.

At a major conference in Kuwait on Tuesday, analysts say, Rice must overcome Arab security fears about reopening embassies in Baghdad and their reluctance to aid a post-Saddam Hussein government tilted toward Tehran.

"What Iraq now needs most, and what I will push for in Kuwait, is greater support from its neighbors," Rice told reporters on Thursday.

She is pushing fellow Arab states, which are led by Sunni Muslims, to "fulfill their promises" to increase their diplomatic, economic, social and cultural engagement with the Shiite-led Iraqi government and Shiite majority.

In welcoming Baghdad fully back to the Arab fold, Rice added, "that in and of itself will begin to shield (Iraq) from influences of Iran that are nefarious."

The conference in Kuwait will be attended by Iraq's Arab and non-Arab neighbors Iran and Turkey, UN Security Council permanent members including the United States and other Group of Eight leading industrial nations.

It will follow talks she will have on Iraq and Middle East peace in Bahrain on Monday with the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan and Gulf oil states Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

And it will come more than a week after General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Baghdad, testified before Congress here about Iran's alleged support for Shiite militias.

Crocker returned to Baghdad via Riyadh on Monday to urge Saudi Arabia to lead the way in reopening Arab embassies and sending ambassadors back to Baghdad, but there was no immediate sign of success.

US officials privately call the diplomatic push a "surge," an echo of last year's troop surge which is seen as having contributed to a decline in violence without leading yet to a political solution among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

Analyst David Pollock said better security in Iraq and a recent crackdown on Iran-backed Shiite militias by Iraqi Prime Minister Nur al-Maliki could prompt Arab states to change course, but was he cautious about such prospects.

"There are some new fragments in the kaleidoscope that have shifted in a potentially more positive direction," said Pollock, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Although Washington faced a daunting task to draw any Shiite-led Iraqi government from its orbit with Iran, he said, Arab states could offer economic aid and debt relief to Baghdad that may make it "more grateful" to them.

Iraq owes tens of billions of dollars in debt to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that was accrued by Saddam's regime, Pollock said. And it owes Kuwait billions more in compensation claims from the 1991 Gulf war.

Rice on Thursday urged Iraq's neighbors to provide debt relief, along with reconstruction and humanitarian assistance.

"The thing that would most help Iraq right now from its neighbors is debt relief," she said.

She also urged Arab neighbors to help stop Sunni militants from crossing the borders and to ease the problem of Iraqi refugees. Three working groups on border security, energy, and refugees are due to give reports in Kuwait.

Ray Takeyh, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, told PBS television Wednesday that he saw no signs of a Sunni Arab rapprochement with a Shiite-led Iraq that would drive a wedge between Iraq and Iran.

"Once the Sunni Middle East begins to grab Iraqis and essentially embrace them, then perhaps you can see some sort of a tension between Iranian Shias and Iraqi Arab Shias. But at this point, that's not there," Takeyh said.

Many analysts like former State Department policy adviser Suzanne Maloney argue that Washington in the long run must engage Tehran in a full dialogue because Tehran is "both part of the problem and the solution in Iraq."

Iran is believed to back all Shiite factions in Iraq, including those supporting Maliki.

But dialogue has been fitful, and Rice told reporters Thursday she had no plans to meet with the Iranian representative at the conference in Kuwait, which is expected to be the foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

It will be the third conference with Iraq's neighbors, the first launched in Egypt in May last year and the second taking place in Turkey in November.

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