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Arab nations are reluctant to back Iraqi government despite their fears of U.S. withdrawal

AMMAN, Jordan – America’s Arab allies fear a quick U.S. departure would plunge Iraq into chaos. But despite U.S. appeals for help last week, the Arabs are reluctant to boost support for Iraq’s Shiite-led government, fearing it would increase the influence of their regional rival, Iran.

Instead, the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and others are taking a middle line, making vague promises of support without rushing to embrace Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they consider almost a proxy for Iran.

They’ve toned down their criticism of the U.S. “occupation” of Iraq and are hoping President Bush can withstand pressure from the Democratic-controlled Congress for a quick U.S. withdrawal.

“Arabs are caught between two fires – an occupation (of Iraq) now or unimaginable chaos in case (the Americans) leave,” said analyst Khalil al-Anani of International Politics, a foreign policy journal in Cairo.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a strong pitch for greater Arab support for Iraq’s embattled government during their joint visit to the Middle East last week.

For their part, the Saudis agreed to study the possibility of opening diplomatic relations with Iraq.

The Saudi statement fell short of a commitment but nonetheless represented a shift from March, when Saudi King Abdullah spoke of Iraqis suffering “in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation.”

Growing opposition to the Iraq war in Congress and among the U.S. public have forced Western-backed Arab governments to consider what would happen after a U.S. departure.

The Saudis, Jordanians and others fear a hasty move would pave the way for Iranian-backed Shiite militias to dominate the country, raising the prospect of bolstering a pro-Iranian Mideast alliance that already includes armed extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

Gates alluded to such fears, telling reporters this week in Cairo that “there clearly is concern” among Arab leaders that the United States “will somehow withdraw precipitously from Iraq” and destabilize the entire region.

Those fears notwithstanding, the United States faces an uphill battle in persuading Sunni Arab leaders to back al-Maliki’s government.

The Saudis and many other Arab leaders consider the al-Maliki government “as part of the problem, not part of the solution,” said Kenneth M. Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.

“They see it as being dominated by chauvinistic Shiite warlords at least allied with Iran, and desirous of reducing the Sunni community to a powerless minority,” Pollack said.

As a result, they see no reason to pour billions of dollars in aid to Iraq – believing leaders there will either just steal it for their own uses or finance Shiite death squads, Pollack said.

Those perceptions were intensified last week when six top Sunnis resigned from Iraq’s government, citing al-Maliki’s refusal to accept a list of Sunni demands.

Until that dispute is resolved, progress in relations between Iraq and other Arab governments is unlikely.

“Most Arab governments do not trust al-Maliki because they consider him an Iranian puppet,” al-Anani said. “But an American withdrawal now will embolden al-Maliki and the Shiites. The Arabs have to weigh their options.”

For months, some Arab leaders have been quietly encouraging the Americans to dump al-Maliki, perhaps in favor of Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who headed Iraq’s first government after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

But Washington has shown no sign it is prepared to remove al-Maliki, an act that could enrage Iraq’s majority Shiite community. At the same time, U.S. leverage over all the regional players – including Iraqi Shiites – has diminished.

“There are a lot of moving parts, and the U.S. has only limited leverage,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution. “All it can do is to create an environment in which all these actors can come to terms, emphasizing to all the Iraqi factions that the American presence is not permanent.”

With a change of leadership in Iraq unlikely, the Saudis and others thus have been quietly supporting Iraqi Sunni groups, including some U.S.-backed tribes that have taken up arms against al-Qaida.

The Arab goal is to bolster the position of Sunni political organizations as they maneuver for a bigger role in government. But backing for such Sunni groups has served to heighten friction with Iraqi Shiite parties, making compromise even more elusive.

“If America succeeds in imposing an (Iraqi) national unity government now, many states will start to extend a helping hand,” said the Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh, which is close to Saudi Arabia’s royal family.

“But with the current situation, no one has any confidence in this (Iraqi) government or thinks it deserves to stay in power,” the newspaper said.

Robert H. Reid is correspondent-at-large for The Associated Press and has reported from the Middle East since 1982.

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