The Observer: As Iraq stood on the brink of all-out civil war yesterday, diplomats from the US and the Middle East began a round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at preventing the beleaguered country’s collapse. The Observer
Cheney asks Saudis to rein in Sunni insurgents as Iran increases its stake in the diplomatic game
Paul Harris in New York, Jonathan Steele in Irbil, Iraq and Robert Tait in Tehran
As Iraq stood on the brink of all-out civil war yesterday, diplomats from the US and the Middle East began a round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at preventing the beleaguered country’s collapse.
US Vice-President Dick Cheney took a rare trip abroad to fly to Riyadh for talks with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a close American ally. He planned to try to secure Saudi help in calming the situation in Iraq. At the same time, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani postponed a trip to Iran because of security problems at Baghdad airport. The trip is now expected to occur today.
The talks are just the beginning of a bout of diplomacy across the Middle East. This week President George Bush will fly to a regional conference in Jordan where he will meet several key Arab leaders, likely to include the Prime Minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will join Bush on the trip.
The latest violence in Iraq, which has seen hundred of civilians killed in bombings and retaliatory attacks, has raised the spectre of ethnic civil war in the country, and Western diplomats are now engaged in attempts to stem the bloodshed. However, it is not clear what they can achieve. Cheney’s meeting with King Abdullah will see him push the Saudis to use their influence with Sunni insurgents in Iraq to halt attacks on the country’s Shia majority. He also wants the oil-rich nation to cough up more cash for Iraqi reconstruction projects, which have slowed to a snail’s pace in the face of the everyday communal violence.
One problem fuelling the violence is that Iraq is becoming a forum for its neighbours to exercise their influence. Iraq’s Shia politicians and their powerful militias are increasingly under the sway of Iran. In flexing its muscles on the world stage, Iran is also carving out its own diplomatic path on Iraq. The expected Iran-Iraq summit in Tehran with Talabani is part of that process and could presage a later three-way meeting between Iraq, Syria and Iran which would be likely to outrage the US.
Such a meeting is increasingly necessary for Iraq’s government, as both Iran and Syria have strong links to violent groups in the country. Talabani is travelling to Tehran in the hope of winning assurances that Iran’s argument with the US over its nuclear ambitions and Israel will not be played out on Iraqi soil. ‘Our hope is that Iran would not use Iraq in its dispute with America. Iran can play an important and positive role to secure Iraq,’ said Talabani’s spokesman, Kamran Qaradaghi.
Yet Iran seems to be already using its influence in Iraq to derail the American-led peace efforts in Jordan. Firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is close to Iran and controls a powerful militia in Iraq, has said that he will leave the ruling coalition if Maliki meets Bush. That could trigger the collapse of Maliki’s fragile government. At the same time it would be difficult for Maliki to snub Bush, who added the Jordanian summit to his schedule at the last minute in response to the Iraqi violence.
Iran took a belligerent stance ahead of Talabani’s arrival. Gholamali Haddad-Adel, the Speaker of Iran’s parliament, blamed the US for stirring up animosity between Iraq’s religious sects. Several newspapers accused the US of ‘standing idle’ during attacks on Shia targets. The semi-official Mehr news agency said recent bloodshed was an attempt to undermine Talabani’s visit. ‘The US occupying forces passively observe such crimes but take no action,’ it said.
In Iraq, there was little sign that the violence is settling down. In the wake of devastating market bombings in Baghdad on Thursday, Shia militias have launched reprisal attacks against Sunni neighbourhoods. The conflict has also dragged in US forces, who reported killing 22 insurgents yesterday.
Yet aside from the increasingly bloody violence, there is now a huge American domestic impetus to end the conflict in Iraq. The Democrats’ victory in recent midterm elections was spurred by anger at the war and spelled out the political dangers of continuing with the conflict, even if pulling out means Iraqi collapse.
Iraq is not the only Middle Eastern issue being discussed in the latest round of diplomacy. Lebanon, which is reeling from the assassination of a popular Christian Interior Minister, is also on the agenda. The same players are on the stage, with Syria and Iran backing the Shia Hizbollah militia and the West supporting the Lebanese government.
At the same time there is outrage in the occupied Palestinian territories after the US vetoed a draft UN resolution criticising Israel’s recent shelling of a home in Gaza that killed 18 people.