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Iraq's Neighbors Meet To Discuss Elections

A preparatory meeting in Amman of the representatives of Iraq's neighboring countries 6 January 2005 -- The foreign ministers from five of the six countries neighboring Iraq are meeting today in Amman to discuss the upcoming Iraqi elections.

Iran's foreign minister is not attending the meeting in protest at comments made by Jordanian officials accusing the Islamic republic of trying to influence the Iraqi vote.

Diplomats in Amman told reporters today that the conference would stress Iraq's "Arab nature" and warn against outside efforts -- an apparent reference to Iran -- to influence the 30 January vote.

Concerns About Shi'a Influence

Diplomats said that statement -- agreed on by the foreign ministers of Sunni-run Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia -- is intended to boost participation in the vote by Iraqi Sunnis. They've threatened a boycott that could weaken the legitimacy of a postelection government.

Rami Abdulrahman is a freelance journalist based in Amman who spoke with RFE/RL.

"Arab nations do not want a Shi'ite Iraq because they don't want an extension of Iran into the Middle East. If the Shi'ites [are] able to win the elections and run Iraq, Iran would have enormous power in Iraq. For many different reasons, Iran is not a very friendly country," Abdulrahman said.

Last month, Jordan's King Abdullah accused Tehran of seeking to establish a Shi'a belt from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq.

Iran rejected those remarks and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi accused Jordan of meddling in the Iraq vote and vowed to boycott today's meeting. Iran has instead sent a low-level delegation.

Joost Hiltermann is with the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Amman. He says Iran's low-level presence will have a negative impact on the conference.

"You cannot really have an effective conference of the neighbors of Iraq if the neighbors are not all represented at the same level. So it is a pity that Iran has chosen to stay away. But it's equally a pity that Jordan has chosen to alienate Iran, the way it has. I think it is in the interest of all neighboring states and especially in the interest of Iraq that there is some kind of common ground that these neighboring states can build on to secure the borders and to enhance security and stability in Iraq," Hiltermann said.

Accusations Of Iranian Interference

In an interview published on Thursday, Abdullah said his comments on Iran had been misinterpreted. But he warned that Iraq's very unity was at stake and reiterated concern about Iraqi Sunnis, saying that no Iraqi group should "feel it is marginalized in future."

Recently, the king also told "The Washington Post" that more than a million Iranians had entered Iraq to influence the vote.

Iran denies those charges, too. Tehran has repeatedly said a stable Iraq is in its interests and that Iraqis should decide on their own about their future.

Analyst Hiltermann believes that Iran would like to assert influence but agrees that there is no evidence to support Abdullah's contention about a million Iranians entering Iraq.

"They're [Sunni countries] drawing a sectarian map here and I think there is a danger to doing that. They see it as a Sunni-Shi'ite issue, where in fact a government that comes about democratically in Iraq would be -- before a Shi'ite, it would actually be a popularly elected government. And that would be in itself a much greater danger to un-elected regimes in the region," Hiltermann said.

Iraq's elections, which take place amid increasing violence, are expected to be dominated by Shi'a candidates with close ties to Tehran.

For that reason, America's Arab allies had sought to delay the election in an attempt to persuade more Sunnis to take part. They relented in the face of U.S. pressure, however.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain fear their own Shi'a minorities could demand more political representation if Shi'a take over in Iraq.

(Compiled from wire reports)


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