By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007
Vice President Cheney faces a diplomatic rescue mission tomorrow in Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah has told top State Department and Pentagon officials over the past six weeks that the kingdom no longer supports Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and does not believe the new U.S. military strategy to secure Baghdad will work, U.S. officials and Arab diplomats said.
The oil-rich kingdom, which has taken an increasingly tough position on Iraq, believes Maliki has proven a weak leader during his first year in power and is too tied to Iran and pro-Iranian Shiite parties to bring about real reconciliation with Iraq's Sunni minority, Arab sources said.
Assuaging Saudi concerns is the primary reason for the vice president's trip -- and even a key reason he went to Baghdad this week, U.S. and Arab officials say. During his stop in Riyadh on Saturday, Cheney wants to be able to tell the Sunni world's most powerful monarch that the Bush administration is leaning hard on the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to implement long-delayed political steps to help end the Sunni insurgency, U.S. officials said.
The king has balked at recent U.S. overtures to do more to help Iraq politically, beyond pledges of debt relief and financial aid, and has explored support for alternative leadership, including former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, U.S. and Arab officials said.
The Saudis have been increasingly concerned about reports that Maliki's government favors Shiite officials in government ministries and Shiite commanders in the Iraqi military -- at the expense of qualified Sunnis whose inclusion would help foster reconciliation, Arab officials said.
Although top Saudi royals have long-standing ties to the Bush family, the deepening divide over Iraq reflects Saudi disillusionment with the Bush administration, according to Arab officials, even as the two countries reaffirm their strong economic and security ties. In striking language, the king publicly called the U.S. presence in Iraq an "illegitimate occupation" in March. And Saudi officials now frequently note the administration's dwindling months in office.
The U.S. Central Command chief, Adm. William J. Fallon, and the State Department's Iraq coordinator, David M. Satterfield, were both rebuffed in appeals to the king during trips to Riyadh last month. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Fallon said the king told him "several times" during their April 1 discussion that U.S. policies "had not been correct in his view."
"He also told me that he had severe misgivings about the Maliki government and the reasons for that," Fallon added. "He felt, in his words, that there was a 'significant linkage to Iran.' He was concerned about Iranian influence on the Maliki government and he also made several references to his unhappiness, uneasiness with Maliki and the background from which he came."
In a message that U.S. officials said will be underscored by Cheney, Fallon said he urged the king to show some support for the Iraqi leadership even if he does not like Maliki, because it is "unrealistic" to expect a change in the Baghdad government.
"We're not going to be the puppeteers here," Fallon told the Senate committee. "It also, given the many constraints that we're under . . . was not very realistic to expect that a new government is going to do any better in a short period of time."
Satterfield met with Abdullah the week before the May 3 to 4 summits on Iraq in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to try to broker a meeting between the Saudi and Iraqi leaders, but the monarch refused to meet with Maliki.
The scope of tensions between Riyadh and Baghdad was evident in Egypt, where top Iraqi and Saudi officials had a heated exchange after the Iraqis appealed for greater Saudi economic and political assistance, including intervention with Sunni tribes in Iraq, said officials who attended the summit. A top Saudi official turned on the Iraqis and said the kingdom had repeatedly helped while the Maliki government had failed to take a single step on constitutional reforms, provincial elections or revising laws banning former Baath Party officials, which have primarily hurt Sunnis.
In a departure from Cheney's previous trip last November, the White House asked for the Saturday meeting in Riyadh and built extra stops around it to try to win support from key Sunni leaders in Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, U.S. and Arab officials said. Cheney arrived yesterday in Abu Dhabi, the second stop on his tour after a two-day visit to Iraq.
The vice president will make the case that Maliki was elected and that Allawi, or any other leader, would not be more effective with the current situation in Iraq, U.S. officials said.
On the eve of Cheney's trip, a senior administration official said that Abdullah's "political and moral stature" in the region gives him important leverage with Iraq's Sunnis and that the vice president would press the kingdom to "do everything they can to try and help stabilize the Iraqi government."
In an interview with Fox News yesterday, Cheney said he plans to "seek advice and counsel" from key allies and reaffirm the U.S. commitment to work with them on "mutual threats." But U.S. officials are already skeptical that the visit will produce a significant breakthrough, beyond underscoring common interests in regional stability.