By Robin Wright and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, July 31 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought yesterday to reassure Arab officials about U.S. intentions in Iraq and the broader Middle East, saying that the United States does not want to leave behind instability in Iraq that could spill across its borders.
Gates and Rice traveled to this scenic Red Sea resort to urge greater support for both the fledgling Iraqi government and President Bush's July 16 initiative to revive Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts, a challenge the administration has embraced after years of scant high-level engagement.
"There is clearly a concern on the part of the Egyptians and it represents concern elsewhere in the region that the United States will somehow withdraw precipitously from Iraq or in some way that is destabilizing to the entire region," Gates told reporters. He and Rice assured Arab officials that the United States has been present in the region for 60 years and has "every intention" of remaining "for a lot longer. As much as anything, this is a trip about reassurance and to look for new multilateral opportunities to work together," Gates said.
Rice met separately with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and five Gulf sheikdoms to request greater involvement in bringing Iraq's minority Sunni community to the reconciliation table with the Shiite-dominated government. A joint statement offered promises of greater support, but neither Gates nor Rice would provide specifics.
Rice and Gates also met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The United States just announced major arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Gulf sheikdoms worth at least $20 billion over an unspecified period of time, as well as a separate 10-year package of military aid to Egypt.
Rice said regional leaders recognize a need to be involved in Iraq's security and said she found "an attitude of wanting to engage," although such pledges have gone largely unheeded in the past. The Sunni governments are deeply skeptical of Iraq's Shiite-dominated leadership. Iraq's neighbors have come under fire for lax border controls and under suspicion for allegedly meddling in the sectarian violence that has plagued Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Figuring prominently in that discussion is the influence of Iran, a topic of concern among nations meeting in Egypt.
"The Iraqis have a very tough battle against some very determined enemies," Rice said. "What I heard today and what we heard from the Egyptians is that they know, these states know, that if the determined enemies are successful then this whole region is going to be chaotic, so this is also a matter of national self-interest."
Speaking of the debate in Washington over the war, Gates said even skeptics and opponents of Bush's war policy are starting to rethink the consequences of a quick withdrawal. He said such a move could leave Iraq, and the region, in chaos.
"What I have begun to hear is more and more of an undertone even from those who oppose the president's policies of the need to take into account the consequences if we make a change in our policy and the dangers inherent of doing it unwisely," Gates said, referring to discussion in the last several weeks.
After the meeting, the United States and the Arab governments issued a statement in which the Arab governments pledged to expand financial and political support for Iraq. They also vowed to avoid interference in Iraq's internal affairs, an assurance Washington has sought to ensure that Sunni-led countries do not play the kind of role with Iraq's Sunni tribes and militias that U.S. officials believe Iran has been playing with Iraq's Shiite militias.
The statement welcomed Bush's initiative to promote peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians and promised to support efforts to that end. The United States wants the Arab states that have not made peace with Israel to be party to an international conference this fall. Saudi Arabia particularly has long resisted participating in any forum with Israel.
But Rice said she was not in the region to extend invitations. Additional trips, she told reporters, would be necessary to work on plans and ideas for the meeting, which she is expected to host.