Sat, Aug 04, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Arab allies reluctant to support Iraq

AP , AMMAN

Um Azhar, left, connects her water hose to neighbor Um Hussein's hose in the Karradah neighborhood of Baghdad on Thursday. Most of the Iraqi capital has been without water for two days.

PHOTO: AP

The US' Arab allies fear a quick US departure would plunge Iraq into chaos. But despite US appeals for help this week, the Arabs are reluctant to boost support for Iraq's Shiite-led government, fearing it would increase the influence of their regional rival, Iran.

Instead, the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and others are taking a middle line, making vague promises of support without rushing to embrace Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they consider almost a proxy for Iran.

They've toned down their criticism of the US "occupation" of Iraq and are hoping President Bush can withstand pressure from the Democratic-controlled Congress for a quick US withdrawal.

"Arabs are caught between two fires -- an occupation [of Iraq] now or unimaginable chaos in case [US troops] leave," said analyst Khalil al-Anani of International Politics, a foreign policy journal in Cairo.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a strong pitch for greater Arab support for Iraq's embattled government during their joint visit to the Middle East this week.

For their part, the Saudis agreed on Wednesday to study the possibility of opening diplomatic relations with Iraq.

The Saudi statement fell short of a commitment, but nonetheless it represented a shift from March, when Saudi King Abdullah spoke about Iraqis suffering "in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation."

Growing opposition to the Iraq war in Congress and among the US public have forced Western-backed Arab governments to consider what would happen after a US departure.

The Saudis, Jordanians and others fear a hasty move would pave the way for Iranian-backed Shiite militias to dominate the country, raising the prospect of bolstering a pro-Iranian Mideast alliance that already includes armed extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Gates alluded to such fears, telling reporters this week in Cairo that "there clearly is concern" among Arab leaders that the US "will somehow withdraw precipitously from Iraq" and destabilize the entire region.

Those fears notwithstanding, the US faces an uphill battle in persuading Sunni Arab leaders to back Maliki's government.

The Saudis and many other Arab leaders consider the Maliki government "as part of the problem, not part of the solution," said Kenneth Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.

"They see it as being dominated by chauvinistic Shiite warlords at least allied with Iran, and desirous of reducing the Sunni community to a powerless minority," Pollack said.

As a result, they see no reason to pour billions of dollars in aid to Iraq -- believing leaders there will either just steal it for their own uses or finance Shiite death squads, Pollack said.

Those perceptions were intensified on Wednesday when six top Sunnis resigned from Iraq's government, citing Maliki's refusal to accept a list of Sunni demands.

Until that dispute is resolved, progress in relations between Iraq and other Arab governments is unlikely.

"Most Arab governments do not trust Maliki because they consider him an Iranian puppet," Anani said. "But an American withdrawal now will embolden al-Maliki and the Shiites. The Arabs have to weigh their options."

Some Arab leaders have been quietly encouraging the US to dump Maliki. But Washington has shown no sign it is prepared to remove Maliki, an act that could enrage Iraq's majority Shiites.

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