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Iraq: U.S. To Push For Greater Arab Engagement At Neighbors' Conference

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be on hand for the foreign ministers' meeting in Kuwait on April 22 (AFP) When the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighboring states meet in Kuwait this week, they can expect increased U.S. pressure to support Baghdad as a counterbalance to growing Iranian influence in Iraq and the wider region.

The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, told reporters in Washington on April 10 that both he and the State Department's top counterterrorism official, retired General Dell Dailey, have pressed Arab states in recent months to increase their diplomatic presence in Iraq and to help stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq.

Other senior diplomats, as well as military and intelligence officers, have visited more than a dozen Middle Eastern countries in an effort to cut the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, Petraeus said. Dailey told "The Washington Post" on April 10 that he had visited Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt between November and February. Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, met again with Saudi officials on April 14 and 15 to press the issue.

On April 22, foreign ministers from Iraq's neighboring states, along with Egypt and Bahrain, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and other Group of Eight (G8) major industrialized states are set to meet in Kuwait to discuss the security situation in Iraq.

The meeting comes on the heels of a two-day gathering on security cooperation held last week in Damascus. That meeting was attended by Iraq's six neighboring states as well as representatives from Egypt, Bahrain, the Arab League, the UN, the permanent members of the Security Council, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the European Union, and the G8.

The issue of foreign fighters in Iraq weighed heavily on that meeting, and Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi stressed what he suggested was a destructive role that Iran has played in Iraq in recent months.

Tensions With Tehran

Arabic press reports on the Damascus conference indicated that an argument broke out during a closed-door meeting between Iraqi and Iranian representatives at the summit. Iraqi officials who attended the meeting told the pan-Arabic daily "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the Iraqis talked openly about the flow of Iranian weapons into Iraq and about operations to fund armed groups.

Officials have said in recent days that the extent of Iranian interference in Iraq became more apparent during the recent security operations against militants in Al-Basrah. Iranian-made weapons have flooded the city, and officials say "regional quarters" -- shorthand for Iran and possibly Syria -- are funding militias such as Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. The Iranians have countered by claiming in interviews that they have played a constructive role in Iraqi security.

The U.S. charge d'affaires in Damascus, Michael Corbin, noted the destructive role of neighboring states in a statement at the Damascus conference. "Terrorist facilitation networks operating throughout the region continue to be a significant threat to the stability of Iraq and, by extension, the entire region," Corgin said. "The influx of foreign-made weapons used by and seized from criminal militia elements involved in fighting Iraqi security forces, which was thrown into stark relief during the recent flare-up of violence in Basrah, the southern provinces, and Baghdad, is another serious threat which this group should address."

The conference reportedly endorsed 13 recommendations that will be forwarded to the foreign ministers' meeting in Kuwait. The recommendations were not made public, but at least one Arabic daily, "Al-Hayat," claimed to have seen them. Perhaps the most notable recommendation reported by the London-based paper is the affirmation that border security is the "joint responsibility" of all. Iraq's neighbors had previously argued that Iraq should bear the weight of responsibility for controlling its borders. Another key recommendation "emphasized the need to take measures to prevent the use of the territories of Iraq or of any of Iraq's neighboring countries for training purposes or orchestrating acts of terror against other countries or their nationals, and to solve such problems through diplomatic means," according to "Al-Hayat."

The recommendations also stressed the need to follow up on commitments made by neighboring states at previous meetings. Delegates in Damascus pledged to follow up on pledges made at the November security meeting in Kuwait and to "quickly name the liaison officers [on border security] who have not yet been named, to exchange information, and to hold another meeting on the sidelines of the [upcoming] interior ministers' meeting in Amman" in October. The point demonstrates the snail's pace at which recommendations are carried out, if they are carried out at all.

Iraq As One Of 'Them'?

While it is difficult to expect that the April 22 meeting will result in any concrete commitments by Iraq's neighbors, it is clear that neighboring Arab states have become more concerned about Iranian encroachment over the past year. The question is whether they are concerned enough to intervene in the case of Iraq.

Moreover, Arab states share key concerns over Iraq that have yet to be addressed. First and foremost is the Iraqi government's commitment (or lack thereof, as Arab states see it) to a pan-Arab vision and ideology. Since it came to power in 2005, the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government has been seen as an Iranian-backed regime that cared little for the preservation of Arab traditions and culture.

The reason for this is twofold. First, Iraq's ruling Shi'ite parties were closely tied to Iran and, in some cases, were funded by Iran before the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Second, the Sunni Arab-majority neighboring states have always had trouble viewing Shi'a -- whether in Iraq or in their own states -- as one of their own. The fact that Shi'a helped unseat Hussein and then pushed the Sunnis from power following Hussein's fall was a disturbing turn of events for Arab leaders, many of whom fear a similar fate -- even though most other Arab states do not have a sizable Shi'ite population. The fact that Kurds are arguably the second-most-powerful group in Iraq today is also not lost on Iraq's Arab neighbors.

Although there was little sympathy for Hussein among regional Arab leaders, the impact of regime change in Iraq, and the displacement of Sunni Arabs from power, significantly impacted Arab leaders. Moreover, it profoundly impacted the psyche of the Sunni Arab world in terms of identity and honor in ways that will take years to understand. If Arab regional leaders engage in Iraq at a time when U.S. forces remain on the ground there, they will face severe criticism at home, which will largely be interpreted as contributing to the occupation of Iraq.

The fact that Iraqi leaders have made little progress in forging national reconciliation only compounds the problem. Last week's decision by Sunni Arab parties to end their boycott and return to government may help assuage some of the neighbors' concerns, but they are likely to want to see more progress in this area before they fully commit to reengaging with Iraq, particularly on the diplomatic level.

There is no doubt that Iran's encroachment in the region is a troubling development for Arab states. In theory, it should prompt them to commit to greater security cooperation to push Iran back. Again, the question comes down to how convinced Arab states are that Iraq is with them and not Iran, and how committed they are to putting words to action.