News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqIraq finds its Arab neighbors are reluctant to offer...

Iraq finds its Arab neighbors are reluctant to offer embrace

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ImageWashington Post: When Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal greeted his Iraqi counterpart with a bear hug at a Persian Gulf conference last month, Bush administration officials watching from the sidelines were all smiles. After years of trying to bring their client state and the Arab giant together, it looked like things were finally starting to click.

The Washington Post

Sunni States Refuse to Forgive Debt, Send Ambassadors

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008; A09

ImageWhen Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal greeted his Iraqi counterpart with a bear hug at a Persian Gulf conference last month, Bush administration officials watching from the sidelines were all smiles. After years of trying to bring their client state and the Arab giant together, it looked like things were finally starting to click.

But despite U.S. entreaties, there has been no second date. Riyadh — along with every other Sunni Arab state — still declines to send an ambassador to Baghdad or to forgive billions of dollars of Hussein-era debt.

To frustrated U.S. matchmakers, it is blindingly obvious that Iraq needs the Arabs and the Arabs need Iraq, as a stable economic and political partner and a regional bulwark against Iran. Iraq may be a Shiite-majority country with a Shiite-dominated government — like Iran — they say, but it is Arab, not Persian.

President Bush plans to press for closer ties again today at a Riyadh meeting with Saudi King Abdullah.

Administration officials say that whatever doubts Iraq's fellow Arabs have about its loyalties should have been laid to rest this spring, when Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, launched military offensives against Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Basra and Baghdad. Last week, the officials note, Maliki's government voiced its first major public expression of concern over Iran's arming of Shiite militias and sent a delegation to Tehran to discuss it.

But Arab governments say they are far from persuaded that Iraq has turned a corner on its internal security, reconciliation among its ethnic, religious and political factions, or its relationship with Persia, as they often refer to Iran.

Beneath differing U.S. and Arab assessments of Iraq's progress are more fundamental divides that neither mentions in polite company. The administration is convinced that the Arabs have a deep-seated, psychological resistance to embracing a Shiite-ruled Iraq, no matter how even-handed its government. What they fail to understand, according to the U.S. view, is that their absence from Baghdad leaves the field open for Iranian influence.

For their part, some Arab officials describe lingering resentment over what they considered Washington's cavalier disregard of their warnings that the U.S. invasion would destabilize Iraq and the region, and its subsequent failure to safeguard the interests of Iraq's minority Sunnis in the U.S.-orchestrated reconstruction of the Iraqi political balance. And they see no reason why they should rush to accommodate the wishes of a lame duck administration that only recently adopted what they consider an effective Iraq policy.

"They will wait for the American election," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari predicted in a recent interview.

Those Arab states who once had representation in Iraq either scaled back or closed their embassies by the end of 2005 — after Jordan's embassy was bombed, Egypt's ambassador was killed, and Algerian and United Arab Emirates diplomats were kidnapped. Some said security is their only hesitation.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials dismissed Arab security concerns as a smokescreen. "If I believed the issue were purely one of security, it would be one thing," a senior Bush administration official said. The Iraqi government has offered the Arabs space inside the fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy and much of the Iraqi government is located.

The real basis for Arab reluctance, the U.S. official said, "is political. It's a choice, an acknowledgement that there is a new Iraq, of recognizing that its political structures, its constitution, its government, is in fact legitimate."

The Arabs, unsurprisingly, say that is nonsense. "Iraq is an Arab country and we want the same things the Americans want," an Arab official said. But beyond diplomatic security, he and others said they are not convinced that the Basra offensive proved that Maliki is ready to stand up to Tehran. They also note that Maliki's government has so far failed to incorporate more than a fraction of the largely Sunni Awakening security forces backed by the U.S. military into the Iraqi police and military forces.

Several Arab officials questioned whether Iraq's military offensives against Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia were staged to crack down on "criminals," as Maliki has said, or to benefit Sadr's Shiite rivals, who are allied with the prime minister. Administration officials raised that possibility themselves immediately after the Basra assault, one Arab noted, before they decided to hail it as evidence of Maliki's willingness to go after his co-religionists.

Several Arab officials attributed their hesitation partly to what they describe as Iraqi government incompetence. Egypt has complained that it has yet to receive the body of its assassinated ambassador, and also that political factions in Baghdad have been unable to agree on Iraq's envoy to Cairo. A Saudi official noted that while Iraq complains about Riyadh's failure to forgive billions in debt, Baghdad has not provided the necessary paperwork and has paid no principal or interest for the past 20 years. Still, the Saudi official said, "nobody is taking them to the credit bureau."

The Arab states are signatories to the International Compact With Iraq, a document signed at the first neighbors conference last May that commits them to assisting Iraqi political and economic development. The Bush administration has expressed hopes that the region will make substantive moves in that direction at the next compact meeting, late this month in Stockholm. But Arab officials say Iraq is not yet close to completing its side of the bargain, including progress toward political reconciliation and the passage of laws regulating the oil industry.

If Washington's message that the ball is in the Arab court has not gotten through, it has not been for lack of trying. President Bush and Vice President Cheney have both delivered it on recent trips to the region, and Bush will also try again when he visits Cairo after Riyadh.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed it last month at a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Bahrain — where her aides cited Faisal's embrace of Zebari as a positive sign — and at a conference for Iraq's neighbors in Kuwait. Other State Department and U.S. military officials have shuttled around Arab states promoting closer ties with Iraq.

"At some point, the Arab states need to take yes for an answer in terms of . . . Iraq's commitment to its Arab identity," Rice told reporters on her flight to Bahrain. Maliki, visibly irritated with the Arabs at the Kuwait conference, said he was "bewildered" by their attitude.

The administration came away from those meetings encouraged, as the six-nation Gulf council agreed to invite Iraq to future sessions and the neighbors pledged to hold their next gathering in Baghdad. "There is a growing recognition that there are changes taking place in Iraq that are important," a senior U.S. official said.

But "I don't want to exaggerate," the official added. "This is a fragile process of rebuilding ties between Iraq and its neighbors. There is a lot of suspicion and mistrust on both sides."

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