Sharm El-Sheikh 'Very Good' First Step For Middle East
Besides U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the foreign ministers of all Iraq's neighbors will attend, including Iran and Syria, two countries that Washington has shunned diplomatically because of what it views as support for terrorism and other bad behavior in the Middle East.
While the conference is ostensibly about how to help Iraq, at least some of the participants, including the United States, are pursuing their own agendas as well.
According to Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian native and Middle East scholar at the National Defense University in Washington, an observer watching Rice, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim, and Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki may be able to see what their countries want -- and whether they'll get it.
And what does Syria want? Jouejati says al-Muallim wants most to have a one-on-one meeting with Rice, if only to get Syria out of what Jouejati calls a "deep freeze" in diplomatic relations with the West. But Jouejati says there is a second, more immediate and more tangible reason that Syria is taking part in the meetings.
"The Syrians have over 1.2 million Iraqi refugees, which is very, very onerous on the Syrian economy," Jouejati says. "And so they have a stake in the stabilization of Iraq, so they think they can play a positive role, although they have already said there is no 'magic wand' -- in other words, they're not going to produce miracles. But it is better to talk to Syria about Iraq than not."
Iran's Mottaki also wants a one-on-one session with Rice -- something his country has been demanding for years, and Washington has been rejecting unless Iran suspends its nuclear program. Iran contends it is pursuing only nuclear power, but Western countries say they suspect it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
Iran Demonstrates Influence
Jouejati says he expects Iran will use the conference on Iraq to help project an image of itself as a key player in the region -- an image that Washington doesn't yet recognize.
"Iran is a major power in the Middle East and it wants to be recognized as such. Iran is in a pivotal position: It could help further destabilize Iraq, or it could stabilize it," Jouejati says. "And so, here again, it is not only a question of Iran and Iraq, and what Iran can do for Iraq, it is also a question of the Iranian-United States relationship."
And that relationship, Jouejati explains, is all about whether Iran or the United States will become the dominant influence in the Middle East, from Afghanistan's western border to the Mediterranean Sea.
Some observers say U.S. President George W. Bush's administration also has its own agenda at the conference. Certainly it wants to stabilize Iraq so that it can withdraw U.S. forces from what's become an unpopular war. They say Washington wants to show that it is still a key player in the Middle East, despite what critics call missteps there.
But Jouejati says the United States has another task at Sharm el-Sheikh: Diminishing, or at least deflecting, the influence of Iran, a Shi'ite Muslim state, in the region.
He notes that Sunni states in the Middle East are concerned about Tehran's links to Iraq's majority Shi'a, as well as its ties to Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories.
To accomplish this, Jouejati says, Rice may have to do some bargaining with Mottaki. "The United States perhaps is ready to concede a little to Iran, but not a whole lot, lest its allies go under," he says. "And for Iran, it is the mirror image. It wants to impose itself as the dominant regional player in the Middle East, and may concede some things if it were recognized as such."
But Jouejati emphasizes that it's too soon to say whether such bargaining might take place at the current conference or later.
Even if very little happens at Sharm el-Sheikh, Jouejati says the conference is an opportunity to restart peace efforts in Iraq and the rest of the region.
"There are a lot of participants at this conference, and usually when there are, not a whole lot can get done. But I am hoping that they will begin to warm up to each other, size each other up, in view of potentially later a more substantive dialogue," Jouejati says. "But a first step needs to be taken, and this is one very good at a very senior level."
|SHARM EL-SHEIKH CONFERENCE -- FURTHER READING|
Judging from past international meetings on Iraq, a lot of rhetoric and little action can be expected. more
|Suspicious Iran To Attend Summit|
Tehran's official line is that it's attending for Iraq's sake and has no interest in talking to the United States. more
Iraq Security Talks Unlikely To Produce Breakthrough
The first day of talks is to focus on the International Compact with Iraq, the five-year reconstruction plan for the country announced on March 16, with the centerpiece being the signing of a debt-relief accord. While the May 4 meeting will focus on Iraq's security situation and the reconciliation process.
Iraqi officials have placed high hopes that such an international gathering will help end the political stalemate in Iraq and the cycle of bloodshed. Wa'il Abd al-Latif, a member of Iraq's parliament, said such a large turnout from the international community was an "indication that a large number of world states seek to support Iraq," state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on April 29.
"This is a good opportunity for Iraq to improve its situation in the areas of reconciliation, government work, economy, and the use of plans and programs, the implementation of some of which requires international support," al-Latif said.
Iran Makes Up Its Mind
After weeks of uncertainty, Iran finally decided to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during an April 29 telephone conversation that Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki would represent Iran at the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings.
The decision is considered a major breakthrough since Iran is seen as one of the keys to stabilizing Iraq. U.S. officials have long accused Iran of supplying arms and training to Shi'ite militias in Iraq. They have also asserted that some of these weapons have been used in attacks against U.S. forces.
Iran's previous reluctance to attend the meeting stemmed in part from its anger over the detention of five Iranian diplomats by U.S. forces in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Irbil in January. The United States accused the Iranians of being intelligence operatives, a charge the Iranians deny.
Furthermore, Tehran fears Washington may use Iraq as a staging ground to instigate regime change in the Islamic republic.
Iraqi officials hope the meetings will give the United States and Iran an opportunity to settle their differences for the benefit of Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said there was a "high possibility" that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mottaki could hold bilateral talks on the meeting's sidelines, a possibility that he said that may lead to a breakthrough, the Fars News Agency reported on April 29.
"I think it's important," Zebari said. "It would be a major breakthrough and any reduction in tensions will positively impact the situation in Iraq. We don't want Iraq to be a battleground for settling scores on other agendas at our cost. Really, this has been harming us, damaging us a lot."
Saudi Arabia Speaks Out
Several of the Arab nations expected to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings are predominately Sunni Muslim and view Shi'ite Iran's growing influence in Iraq as a threat to regional stability. Saudi Arabia has emerged as the most vocal regional critic of Iran's growing stature in the Gulf.
On April 26, the Iraqi daily "Al-Zaman" reported that al-Maliki had been informed by Saudi officials that King Abdullah was too busy to meet with him during his latest regional Arab tour to drum up support for the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings. A Saudi diplomat indicated that al-Maliki was rebuffed in part because of "his negative position toward some groups [in Iraq], his bias toward other groups, and his actions in allowing Iran to have a greater role in Iraq."
While the Iraqi government tried to downplay the snub, U.S. Secretary of State Rice acknowledged there are indeed Saudi concerns about Iraq's leadership, CNN reported on April 29.
"There's no doubt that the Saudi government has concerns about the process of reconciliation in Iraq," Rice said.
The fact that al-Maliki was snubbed only a week before the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting by a highly influential regional nation speaks volumes. Not only does the incident underscore the Kingdom's unease over the Iraqi government's close ties to Iran, but it essentially sends a signal that the Saudis do not believe al-Maliki has the will or ability to broker a political solution to the ongoing conflict in Iraq.
Moreover, it is also a reflection of the growing regional isolation of Iraq's government, which is seen by many Sunni nations as not doing enough secure the support of disaffected Sunnis in Iraq.
Furthermore, the incident is seen as a major blow to U.S. diplomatic efforts to garner greater support among regional Arab states to help solve Iraq's problems. David Satterfield, Rice's senior adviser on Iraq, has been in the region for nearly two weeks, meeting with Arab leaders to drum up support for Iraq in the run-up to the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings.
A Proxy War?
This is not the first time the Saudis have voiced concerns about Iraq's leadership, particularly with respect to Iran's influence. Indeed, there have been murmurings in the Arab and international press that the Iraq conflict may eventually develop into a proxy war between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia.
On November 29, 2006, the then-director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, Nawaf Obaid, published an opinion piece in "The Washington Post" suggesting that if the United States withdrew troops from Iraq, Saudi Arabia would arm Sunni Arabs to counter Iran's alleged support of Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Obaid was subsequently fired for his comments.
Two weeks later on December 13, "The New York Times" reported that Saudi King Abdullah echoed this notion to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney when Cheney was in Riyadh on November 25.
The two-day meeting with more than 60 representatives is itself an important accomplishment, but agreeing on a comprehensive framework to assist Iraq may be the difficult part. As the Baghdad security operation enters its third month, one thing seems clear -- Iraq cannot be stabilized by force alone and a political solution is needed to end the conflict.
Therefore, a broad diplomatic strategy encompassing Iraq's regional neighbors is needed for Iraq to arrive at any political solution.
While Iran's decision to attend the meeting is seen as a positive development, its presence does not necessarily guarantee success. In fact, Tehran might be participating purely as a public relations move. By attending the meeting, Iran will be seen as trying to be part of the solution to Iraq's problems rather than acting as a hindrance. This is all the more important since Iran is being increasingly isolated by members of the international community for its controversial nuclear program.
The meeting may also result in the United States and Iran engaging in the highest-level bilateral talks in 27 years. However, this possibly historic occurrence could overshadow the main aim of the talks -- providing greater assistance to Iraq.
Another ominous indication that the talks may end without any significant breakthrough is the already suspect views taken by certain Arab nations toward Iraq even before the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings have even started.
And Saudi Arabia is not the only problem. Kuwait is expected not to forgive the $15 billion Iraq owes the Gulf state. This would constitutes a blow to what Washington believes is an important strategy to help Iraq stand on its own feet financially -- debt forgiveness.
Senior State Department aide Satterfield acknowledged in a State Department communique on April 30 that a more robust dialogue was needed between Arab nations and Iraq and greater Arab diplomatic representation was needed in Baghdad.
"Clearly, a better dialogue needs to be established both ways between Iraq and its Arabic neighbors," Satterfield said. "It's been a problem as it would be a problem for us or for any other country in terms of second- and third-hand information flows, often with a deliberate slant or interpretation applied."
It is difficult to guess whether the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings will produce a breakthrough, but judging from past international meetings on Iraq, we might expect a lot of rhetoric and little action. Moreover, in the end, the onus falls on Iraq's shoulders to initiate a breakthrough. It has yet to pass a comprehensive and equitable hydrocarbon law, and it has yet to reverse the de-Ba'athification process. Many U.S. and Iraqi officials believe legislation in both areas would go a long way toward reducing sectarian tensions and would help Iraq move toward reconciliation.
Assessing The Last Conference
The last Iraq security conference was held in Baghdad in March. Views on that event tended to be split along Iraq's sectarian fault lines. more
Iran participated in the March Iraq security conference. Tehran called it a "first step," but remained wary. more
Al-Qaeda In Iraq Leader Struggled With Native Insurgents
Nonetheless, it is clear that Al-Qaeda, which currently operates under the name Islamic State of Iraq, has been increasingly at odds with homegrown Iraqi insurgent groups in recent months.
Al-Muhajir was named the successor to Mujahedin Shura Council leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi in June, following al-Zarqawi's death in a U.S. bombing near Ba'qubah.
The Eqyptian-born al-Muhajir was described in a June 12, 2006, Internet statement identifying him as al-Zarqawi's successor as a "seasoned fighter." U.S. officials have said he spent time in Afghanistan before his arrival in Iraq, where he headed up Al-Qaeda's first cell. A close aide of al-Zarqawi -- some accounts say he was No. 2 to al-Zarqawi -- al-Muhajir was reportedly a major recruiter for Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The U.S. government has placed a $5 million bounty on his head.
In his first public statement after assuming control of the Mujahedin Shura Council, al-Muhajir addressed Osama bin Laden: "We are waiting for your directives and we are at your disposal. The good news is that the morale of your soldiers is very high. They are very proud to be serving under your banner as the beams of victory started to appear on the horizon by the permission of the Almighty."
In the months that followed, the Mujahedin Shura Council, which largely comprises foreign fighters, faltered in terms of legitimacy and support inside Iraq. This faltering was part of a downward spiral that began in 2005 under al-Zarqawi, under whose leadership foreign fighters terrorized civilians, seized their money and property, and killed clerics and community leaders that opposed him.
Al-Zarqawi ignored the warnings of Sunni Islamist thinkers that his group's actions were in violation of Islamic law and were alienating the Islamic and Iraqi communities.
The fact that al-Muhajir, like al-Zarqawi, was a foreigner who appeared willing to sacrifice Iraqi civilians in his quest to kill coalition forces, was a red line for many Iraqi insurgent groups. It was also a red line for Al-Anbar's Sunni Arab chieftains who had once given shelter to the Mujahedin Shura Council.
A Strategic Rebranding
In November, al-Muhajir pledged allegiance to Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization purportedly established in October that now includes the Mujahedin Shura Council and several smaller jihadist groups In reality, the Islamic State is probably no more than a rebranding of the Mujahedin Shura Council, to make it more "Iraqi" in nature.
In December, Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters intelligence indicated that Al-Qaeda was in the midst of a leadership crisis and al-Muhajir's men did not trust him.
In his November pledge to al-Baghdadi, al-Muhajir told his followers: "Forget about the statement of those who say that what counts is the unity of visions or ideas and not the unity of swords and the strings of bows.... If our religion and objectives are the same and if our enemy is the same, then what prevents us from being united?"
"I pledge allegiance to you," he said, addressing al-Baghdadi," to hear and obey during good and bad times.... I announce the integration of all the formations that we have established, including the Mujahedin Shura Council...under the authority of the Islamic State of Iraq, putting at your disposal and direct orders, 12,000 fighters who constitute the army of Al-Qaeda" as well as 10,000 fighters-in-training.
"As of today, we are your zealous soldiers and faithful men," he added. "We will obey all that you say and order."
He signed off by calling himself "the soldier," rather than Mujahedin Council leader.
Continued Divisions Within The Insurgency
Al-Muhajir pleaded with homegrown Iraqi insurgent groups to join the Islamic State [Al-Qaeda] in Iraq. However, the disdain in which Iraqi groups held the Islamic State was on the rise. If reports by the Islamic State are correct, then Iraqi insurgent groups lost some "brigades" to the Islamic State. The loss of their fighters to an organization that came late to the Iraqi scene and was comprised of foreign fighters, though now led by al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi, had to be keenly felt.
Moreover, the insistence that homegrown insurgent groups bow down to the Islamic State was insulting to the Iraqi fighters defending their homeland. The fact that the Islamic State's end goal -- the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq -- was not the end goal for Iraqi insurgent groups, despite their rhetoric in support of an Islamic state, was another obvious source of contention.
The Islamic State's insistence that Iraqi groups subordinate themselves to its hierarchy and vision only increased after November, leading to a number of documented clashes between the Islamic State and homegrown insurgent groups. When the Islamic State began targeting Iraqi insurgent leaders with attacks and assassinations, the Iraqi groups responded with vigor.
The response of insurgent groups prompted al-Baghdadi to apologize to Iraqi insurgent groups and to caution his fighters to control their behavior. At least one insurgent group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, appeared unwilling to accept the apology. Islamic Army in Iraq spokesman Ibrahim al-Shammari told Al-Jazeera television in an April 17 interview that the Islamic State of Iraq should first prove they have changed their ways before an apology would be accepted.
Just days later, the Islamic State of Iraq announced the formation of its cabinet, with al-Muhajir -- apparently the only non-Iraqi -- named minister of war.