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Iraq: Neighbors Have Conflicting Visions Of Country's Future

There is no clear consensus inside Iraq about its future political course, while neighboring countries also share no common view of where Iraq should be headed. Shi'a Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia, and secular Turkey envisage different and sometimes conflicting scenarios of Iraq's place in the wider Middle East.

Prague, 12 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Following decades of Saddam Hussein's unpredictable rule, Iraq's neighbors are interested now in a stable and secure country, and no capital is seriously suggesting the U.S.-led coalition withdraw its forces immediately. That's just about where agreement ends, however.

Iran is the most populous country bordering Iraq and is also the biggest Shi'a state in the world. Iran's interests in Iraq, where Shi'a make more than 60 percent of the population, are broad, and it has been accused by Washington of sending agents into the country to advance its interests.

Adel Darwish is a political commentator based in London and one of the authors of the book "Unholy Babylon: The Secret History of Saddam's War." Darwish told RFE/RL that Iran is concerned about the future political role of the Shi'a majority in Iraq, as well as by how long U.S. forces remain in Iraq.

"[Iranians] are very concerned that any future dispute, any regime that is installed there, might be used as a front line against them -- the same way as West Germany was a front line against the Soviet bloc in the Cold War. That might not be true or a correct analysis, but that's actually their perception," Darwish said.

Julian Lindley-French, a security expert at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, said Iran would like to see someone like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in power because it would reflect the vision of conservative leaders in Tehran. "In an ideal situation, they would like someone like Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in power because the conservative mullahs, the clerics in Tehran, could probably do business with him," he said.
"If the Americans withdraw from Iraq when there's chaos -- if there's chaos -- then that has security implications for Syria, for Saudi Arabia, in particular, for the Gulf states, for Jordan. None of them want that instability." -- Julian Lindley-French

However, French said the fact that Iranians are not Arabs limits their ability to influence what is happening in Iraq and in the wider Middle East.

Darwish noted than Iran, which fought a bitter war with Iraq in the 1980s, still has several unresolved historical disputes with Baghdad. One is a border dispute concerning the Shaff al-Arab waterway. Another stems from Iraqi Kurd aspirations to create an autonomous Kurdish state. Darwish said Tehran fears Iranian Kurds might be encouraged to seek more autonomy, too.

Turkey, another non-Arab Muslim country and a close ally of the United States, is also concerned about the future status of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey strongly opposes Kurdish statehood and fears further aspirations for autonomy will cause unrest in Turkey itself, which has a large Kurdish population. Turkey also is a close observer of the situation of the Turkoman minority in Iraq, whose status might be used as a bargaining chip to oppose Kurdish aspirations.

Darwish said other Turkish concerns in Iraq are largely economic. Ankara wants stability so that economic cooperation and trade can be renewed. "A large part of the Turkish economy relies on trade from northern Iraq and central Iraq and the oil pipeline going through Turkey," he said. "So they are very interested in having a stable Iraq, but if Iraq is fragmented, they always have the Turkoman minority card to play."

Saudi Arabia, Iraq's largest neighbor, is a conservative Sunni state. French said that, while the Saudi royal family wouldn't necessarily like to see Shi'a rule in Iraq, Riyadh desires a stable neighbor most of all.

But not everyone in Saudi Arabia agrees. Darwish noted that the royal family does not fully control Saudi society, especially its different religious groups. "It might not be necessarily the Saudi royal family, but as you see in Saudi Arabia, the royal family is not in full control of the religious elements there, and those religious elements are facilitating the volunteers, what we call foreign fighters in Iraq, with Wahhabi ideology, with links to Al-Qaeda," he said.

Jordan is another influential Sunni state, a U.S. ally, and Iraq's neighbor to the west. A Hashemite king, Abdullah II, rules the kingdom. Jordan also wants stability in Iraq and seeks to renew economic cooperation and trade through Jordanian ports.

Darwish believes Jordan would prefer to see a Hashemite monarchy in Baghdad. "Jordan's interest would be served best with a stable Iraq under monarchy," he said. "Whether someone from King Hussein's family would do it or Sharif Ali [bin al-Hussein, a cousin of former Iraqi King Faisal II] or someone else is a secondary question." Darwish pointed out that Jordan is not united on the subject because many Palestinians, who make up half the population, support the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq and have their own agenda.

Kuwait, which was invaded by Iraq in 1990, is also interested in a stable Iraqi state and will always be supportive of U.S. and British projects there, Darwish said.

As for Syria, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Damascus yesterday for its alleged support for terrorism, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and for its failure to stop anti-U.S. fighters from entering Iraq. It is not clear how Syria's policies toward Baghdad will be affected by the U.S. move.

Julian Lindley-French said all of Iraq's neighbors want U.S. forces to stay in the country, at least for the near future. He said all states, including Iran, clearly understand that a hasty departure would create instability in the region. "I don't think they want the Americans out of Iraq until things are far more stable in Iraq," he said. "If the Americans withdraw from Iraq when there's chaos -- if there's chaos -- then that has security implications for Syria, for Saudi Arabia, in particular, for the Gulf states, for Jordan. None of them want that instability."

French said it is no surprise that Iraq's neighbors do not share a common vision of Iraq's future when the United States and Britain also lack such a perspective. However, he says the situation on the ground is leading everyone to search for more pragmatic solutions.