US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's appeal for Arab allies to help support the fragile government in Iraq drew a tepid endorsement on Tuesday from the administration's strongest ally in the region.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Saudis hope US President George W. Bush's plan to turn around the situation in Iraq is successful, but was plainly skeptical that the Iraqi government is up to the task of doing its part.
"We are hoping these objectives will be implemented, but the means are not in our hands," he said. "They are in the hands of the Iraqis themselves."
Al-Faisal spoke at length about the centuries old civilization in Iraq where Sunni and Shiite Muslims have been living together for years, but are now threatened by violence that has killed thousands.
"I cannot for the life of me conceive that a country like that would commit suicide," said al-Faisal, adding that he prefers not to speculate about what he called the "dire consequences" of a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.
Rice is nearing the end of her tour of Arab allies meant to draw support for Bush's blueprint, which relies heavily on the Iraqi government's will and ability to curb sectarian violence and rally confidence among disaffected Sunni Arabs.
Rice traveled to Kuwait later on Tuesday, where she was to meet with diplomats from Persian Gulf countries.
"I've briefed the president's plan on Iraq at all the different stops," Rice told reporters traveling with her. "There is, I think, very good support for the American commitment there, very good support for the objectives the president wants to achieve."
Rice acknowledged the doubts, however.
"Everyone says exactly the same thing, which we are all saying too, that it requires now that everybody fulfills the obligations of the plan, particularly that the Iraqis have to carry through on their obligations," she said.
Bush's strategy to send more troops to Iraq met with skepticism across the Middle East before Rice arrived, with diplomats and editorialists predicting that even with more soldiers, the US would fail to break the cycle of violence.
There were deep doubts that US troops, or the Shiite-led Iraqi government, would tackle what many in the Sunni-dominated Arab world see as the chief threat to Iraq: Shiite militias, which are blamed for fueling the cycle of sectarian slayings.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has resisted US pressure in the past to move against militias, but last week he pledged to crack down on political ally Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Many in the Arab world profoundly distrust al-Maliki's government, believing it is serving Iran's interests at the expense of Sunnis. Bush's plan depends heavily on al-Maliki to use Iraqi troops to crack down on militants from both sides and meet a series of benchmarks to promote reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.
In Saudi Arabia, Rice thanked her hosts for their past help in urging national reconciliation in Iraq, but did not make specific new requests for the predominantly Sunni kingdom's help.
Although a distinct minority, Sunnis had dominated the government in Iraq until the US-led ouster of Saddam Hussein left Shiites in control.
Rice, who has said debt relief would be a good way for Saudi Arabia to help its neighbor, was more optimistic than al-Faisal about the the Iraqi government.
"As the president has said, Iraqis have to decide what kind of country they will be," Rice said, alluding to Bush's assertion that the ultimate future of Iraq is in the hands of Iraqis.
"We share risk and we share responsibility, because this is an area of the world which will very much be affected by how Iraq turns out," Rice said during a news conference on Monday in Egypt.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, a frequent critic, was ready to give Bush's plan the benefit of the doubt.
"We are supportive of that plan because we are hopeful that that plan would lead to ensure the stability, the unity and the cohesion of the Iraqi government," he said.
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