By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
KUWAIT CITY, Jan. 16 -- A group of eight Arab nations on Tuesday joined the United States in issuing a veiled warning to Iran against interfering in Iraq's affairs but offered only tepid support for President Bush's new plan for stabilizing Iraq.
The statement was written in diplomatic jargon and did not mention Iran by name or even cite concerns about Iran's nuclear program. It warned against "destabilization" of the Persian Gulf, expressed support for the "principle of noninterference" and said it did not want Iraq to become "a battleground for regional and international powers," code for Iran and the United States.
The statement welcomed Bush's speech as expressing "a commitment by the United States" to saving Iraq, but made no mention of Bush's proposed troop buildup.
"Nine foreign ministers are meeting in Kuwait precisely to prevent Iraq from slipping into civil war," said Kuwait's foreign minister, Mohammed al-Sabah, at a news conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The statement was also joined by five other Gulf Arab states -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates -- and Egypt and Jordan.
The meeting came as the United States deployed a second aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf region for the first time since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Rice is touring the Middle East to win support for Bush's plan and bolster what she calls a "mainstream" alliance of Arab states opposed to violent extremists such as Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Since September, Rice has prodded the eight nations, America's closest friends in the Middle East apart from Israel, to create an informal group to discuss regional issues. Arab officials have said privately they are reluctant participants in the meetings, in part because they are wary of being perceived as an anti-Iran alliance. The meeting Tuesday, in a vast palace here, was the fourth such gathering and the first to result in a joint statement.
In contrast to the statement, Sabah offered a relatively firm endorsement of the Bush plan. "We expressed our desire to see the president's plan to reinforce the American military presence in Baghdad as a vehicle and a venue to stabilize Baghdad," he said. He also acknowledged the joint statement was aimed at Iran.
But earlier, when Rice visited Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal offered only lukewarm support for the Bush plan, saying it was up to the Iraqi government to demonstrate that it could end sectarian violence and unite the fractured nation. "Other countries can help," Saud said, "but the main responsibility in taking decisions rests on the Iraqis."
Saud, speaking after Rice had evening and morning meetings with King Abdullah and other Saudi officials, declined to comment on the specifics of Bush's plan, which calls for an increase of 21,500 troops, in part to help secure Baghdad.
"The details of how to implement those objectives, I don't think we can cover in one night of discussions," Saud said.
Rice told reporters traveling with her that she has received support for Bush's plan but acknowledged the skittishness in the predominately Sunni Arab states of the Gulf.
"There are concerns about whether the Maliki government is prepared to take an even-handed, nonsectarian path here. There is no doubt about that," Rice said, referring to the Shiite-led administration of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "After all the years of deep grievance in the region, within Iraq, it's not surprising that that's the case. But everyone wants to give this a chance. That's the position of people in the region."
Saud, at a news conference with Rice, described the situation in Iraq as a "morass," which he said "serves no one. It serves no neighboring country, no regional power and no international power."
He added that Iraq "is an old historic country with a civilization that goes back thousands of years. I cannot for the life of me conceive that a country like that would commit suicide."
Saudi Arabia, a majority Sunni country with a history of rivalry with Iran, has been alarmed at the dominance of the Shiites in the Iraqi government and the rising influence of Iran in the region.
The day before Rice arrived here, Ali Larijani, Iran's top national security official, visited Riyadh for talks with the king.
"We, Saudis and other neighboring countries can help the Iraqi people to take the lead to consolidate their government's capability to stabilize and maintain security in their country," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in an interview taped Saturday, the Associated Press reported. "I sent a message to King Abdullah in this regard and the answer, generally, was positive," Ahmadinejad said.
Saudi news reports suggested that the message requested mediation in the growing battle of nerves between the United States and Iran. Iran denied the report, and Rice and Saud both said there was "no need" for mediation.