Iraq's Neighbors Noncommittal on Aiding Government
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
KUWAIT CITY, April 22 -- Iraq's neighbors failed on Tuesday to commit themselves to any immediate strengthening of diplomatic or economic support for the Baghdad government, but agreed to hold their next gathering, six months from now, in the Iraqi capital.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the meeting of the Iraq neighbors conference, along with Monday's meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Bahrain, as a "very good couple of days for Iraq being reintegrated into the Arab neighborhood."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he sensed "a new mood in the Arab world," which has largely ostracized Iraq because of its close ties to Iran, whose government is overseen by Shiite clerics. Both Zebari and Rice contrasted the Kuwait meeting with two prior sessions of the neighbors group in the last year, in which the Sunni Arab states were sharply critical of Iraq's Shiite-led government.
"Iraq is a different place than it was" when the first neighbors meeting was held in Egypt last May, Rice said in a speech to the conference of foreign ministers. The Bush administration established the neighbors mechanism, which also includes representatives of the Group of Eight highly industrialized nations and China, to try to build international support for the Iraqi government.
"The decision of this conference to express its intent to hold its next meeting in Baghdad," Rice told reporters, "is yet another sign that things are moving forward." Arab ministers balked at plans to hold the second conference, last November, in the Iraqi capital, which they felt was unsafe. That meeting took place in Istanbul.
At the previous meetings, attention focused on whether Rice would meet with her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Although they had a brief discussion at the first neighbors conference and shook hands at the second, a U.S. official said their exchange Tuesday was limited to hellos as they passed by each other. In a clear reference to the United States during his speech to the Kuwait conference, Mottaki blamed "foreign interference" for most of Iraq's problems.
Arab leaders, in their speeches, credited Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with some progress in reconciling Iraq's sectarian groups. Several noted the military offensive Maliki launched last month against Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, whose words are closely attended by other Arab states, also cited "foreign interference" in Iraq but clearly had Iran's alleged arming of the Shiite militias in mind. Still, he said, "the Saudi kingdom views Iraq as an authentic part of the Arab and Islamic nation."
Despite U.S. and Iraqi hopes, however, Saud made no mention of opening a Saudi embassy or forgiving Iraq's massive debt. A Saudi delegation visited Baghdad last year to scout embassy property, but there has been no follow-up.
Saudi Arabia holds one of the largest portions of Iraq's remaining $67 billion in outstanding debt, much of it owed to the Persian Gulf states from the time of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The Saudis had pledged a year ago to forgive 80 percent of the more than $15 billion that Iraq owes the kingdom. The United States, Europe and Russia have written off most of the money owned them by Iraq.
No Arab state has diplomatic representation in Iraq, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the only head of government from the region to visit Baghdad since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The Bush administration has pushed its regional allies to provide diplomatic and economic support for Iraq to counter Iranian influence.
Kuwait's foreign minister said Sunday that his country is looking to open an embassy in Baghdad for the first time since Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait in 1990. The king of Bahrain told President Bush during a recent visit that his country would also send an ambassador. Neither set a date. The rest, Zebari said in an interview Monday, are "waiting for the big brother, which is Saudi Arabia."
Maliki, in a speech to the conference, said he found it troubling that the Arabs had not made good on previous pledges. "This is an initiative we expected some time ago, but it did not materialize," he said. While Arab states cited security in Baghdad, "Western countries have kept their diplomatic missions in Baghdad and did not give any security pretexts," Maliki said.