U.S. Seeks U.N. Help With Talks On Iraq

Recent U.S. efforts to reach out to Iraq's neighbors have yielded little new cooperation. Arab officials said the Bush administration lacks credibility.
Recent U.S. efforts to reach out to Iraq's neighbors have yielded little new cooperation. Arab officials said the Bush administration lacks credibility. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
By Colum Lynch and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 10, 2007

UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 9 -- The Bush administration is proposing a series of U.N.-brokered talks in Baghdad between the United States and Iraq's neighbors in an effort to rally support for the beleaguered Iraqi government.

The initiative, outlined in an interview with Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, comes as American diplomats have struggled to gain regional backing for U.S. policies in Iraq. After a high-profile trip to the Middle East last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yielded few results, the administration is turning to the United Nations to help enlist Iraq's most influential neighbors, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in stabilizing the country.

"I think you need regional help to get the Iraqis to come together," Khalilzad said. "For us, it's so hard to do this."

The evolving U.S. strategy is modeled on the approach used several years ago to build a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. With backing from Washington, the United Nations shored up support from Afghanistan's most powerful neighbors, including Iran and Pakistan. The resurgence of this approach underscores the rising influence of pragmatic U.S. diplomats who believe it is necessary to engage some of America's bitterest enemies in the Middle East.

The move comes as the U.N. Security Council prepares for a vote Friday on a resolution expanding the United Nations' mediation role in Iraq. The resolution would grant the global body a clearer mandate to promote such international talks and to lead diplomatic efforts aimed at uniting Iraq's rival factions.

After reviewing its Iraq policy last winter, the White House committed to boosting diplomatic efforts in the region. But Washington has failed to win significant new cooperation from any of the countries bordering Iraq -- Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. In Egypt last week, Rice met with the "six plus two" nations, an informal alliance of the six sheikdoms in the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt and Jordan, but the only tangible result was a Saudi offer to explore opening an embassy in Baghdad.

"Regional diplomacy has turned out to be only lip service," said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "We have failed to create circumstances for political reconciliation and unity in Iraq. And we have not taken the next step to engage with Iraq's neighbors to support a process that produces that result."

U.S. efforts to directly enlist Iranian support in Iraq have also suffered setbacks. Since May, Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has twice held formal talks with Iranian ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi in Baghdad, but State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday that this new dialogue -- the first public contact between the two nations in 28 years -- has so far yielded no positive results.

At a news conference Thursday, President Bush cautioned, "The American people should be concerned about Iran," adding, "They should be concerned about Iran's activity in Iraq, and they ought to be concerned about Iran's activity around the world."

After the 2003 invasion, many of Iraq's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, called for a regional forum under U.S. or U.N. auspices. But Washington did not want to legitimize Tehran and Damascus by engaging in diplomatic talks, Arab officials said. More recently, the Bush administration has sought to tap regional assistance and resources, they added, but with too little credibility and limited time left in Bush's term to meet critical goals.

Khalilzad said the new initiative would benefit from the United Nations' experience in international political negotiations. He added that he believes the expanded U.N. mission would be led by Staffan De Mistura, a Swedish national who has served with the United Nations in Lebanon, Iraq and other trouble spots. A more prominent international figure could be invited to lead the Iraq talks in the future, Khalilzad added.

But De Mistura's appointment is facing stiff opposition from Baghdad, which favors Radu Onofrei, a former Romanian envoy to Iraq, to head the U.N. mission. "With all due respect to Ambassador Khalilzad, the decision will be taken by the secretary general, and the views of the government of Iraq have to be taken very seriously," said Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi, Iraq's deputy ambassador to the United Nations.

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