Arabs cool to Bush’s Iraqi plan

CAIRO (AP) — Arab leaders were deeply skeptical of the US plan for Iraq, a day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to sell it to them. Kuwait’s emir told Rice that America should work with Iran and Syria, officials said — something US President George W. Bush has rejected.

The Bush administration plans to send US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns on another Mideast shuttle to offer more details in an effort to persuade Arab leaders who are increasingly fearful over Iraq, a US diplomat said Wednesday.

Meeting with Rice on Tuesday in Kuwait, eight Arab foreign ministers raised tough questions about Bush’s new strategy.

The ministers — from six Gulf states plus Egypt and Jordan — showed particular concerns about whether the Shiite-led government of Nouri Maliki can reach out to Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority to end their resistance and lure them to the political process, said Arab diplomats.

“Arabs need to know specifically what can the Americans and the Iraqis do to end sectarian domination of the government,” said one diplomat familiar with Rice’s talks, referring to the Iraqi Shiite-Kurdish alliance which controls the Baghdad government. He and other diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions during the closed meeting were private.

A final statement put out by the ministers reflected their distrust of Maliki’s government. They gave vague support for Bush’s Iraq plan, welcoming a US commitment to defend “the territorial integrity of Iraq and to ensure a successful, fair and inclusive political process”. But they also said it is the “responsibility of the Iraqi government to achieve these goals”. The most upbeat comments came from Egypt, where Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit voiced support for the US plan.

“Bush’s strategy is not merely a military action or operation or a unilateral military programme. It represents a vision with different political, military and economic aspects,” he told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday.

But he said he underlined to Rice that US and Iraqi forces must crackdown on Shiite militias he said “have been killing Iraq’s Sunnis”. Over several stops in her five-day tour, Rice acknowledged concerns about whether the Shiite-led Iraqi government would take “an evenhanded, nonsectarian path” by targeting Shiite militiamen as well as Sunni insurgents and seek reconciliation.

Many Arab leaders feared it would not.

“The main objective now is how to achieve national reconciliation,” the Saudi ambassador to the Arab League, Ahmad Qatan said Wednesday. “Unfortunately the deteriorating conditions cannot provide any hope.” “The situation won’t stabilise soon and the current curve [of violence] will continue for a long time,” he told Cairo’s leading newspaper, Al Ahram.

Many in the media depicted Rice’s visit as a failure.

“The whole jet-setting trip turned out to be yet another stage-managed, futile diplomatic exercise… In effect, Rice returns to Washington empty-handed with a lot of false promises rather than optimism,” Qatar-based Peninsula newspaper wrote in editorial.

Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi said that besides their doubts over the plan itself, Arab leaders had a difficult time throwing support behind it “when there has been a total failure in Iraq and the Palestinian territories with no attempt to soften the anger that is seething in the Arab and Muslim countries”. The emir of Kuwait was surprised that the Bush plan excludes Iran and Syria from contacts on Iraq.

It is important to have a “dialogue with Syria, in particular, and with Iran in the interest of Gulf security in general,” Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad Al Sabah quoted the emir as telling Rice.

Bush took a tough line on Syria and Iraq in announcing his plan, accusing them of supporting militants in Iraq — making clear his rejection of proposals for engaging the two countries to use their influence to calm the violence.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is pressing the US to take more active steps to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process in return for helping to stabilise Iraq. The deal, dubbed “Iraq for Land”, echoes widespread Arab feelings that resolution to the conflict is key to Mideast stability.

Saudi columnist Dawoud Shriyan underlined Rice should take the calls seriously. “Every time the Americans are in trouble in Iraq, they remember that Arabs have a cause named Palestine. Therefore, they float some statements to create the impression that they continue their efforts in the peace process,” he wrote in the Saudi-owned Hayat newspaper Wednesday.

Burns’ mission to the region next week aims to mitigate Arabs worries.

“Everything [Rice] has been doing in the region, he’s going to try to explain,” said Hilary Olsin-Windecker, spokeswoman for the US embassy in Abu Dhabi, the Emirates capital. Burns will “flesh out specifics” of US policy changes Rice outlined, Olsin-Windecker said.

Burns also is expected to make a major policy address that details new US steps in Iraq and the Gulf in hopes of finally convincing sceptical Gulf allies to support America’s project in Iraq, said Mustafa Alani, who oversees military policy at the Gulf Research Centre.

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