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Iraq a Mideast power player? It could happen. Really.

BAGHDAD – As violence in Iraq recedes, neighboring states are pondering how to deal with an unwieldy country that could re-emerge as a key player along with Saudi Arabia and Iran in one of the world’s most strategic regions.

The role of regional power broker may seem far-fetched for Iraq — a devastated land best known for car bombs, death squads and suicide attackers.

Still, countries of the Middle East cannot ignore the potential role of a resurgent Iraq, a nation of 28 million people, bordering Iran to the east, Syria and Jordan to the west and sitting on one of the world’s major pools of oil.

For those reasons, the United States cannot afford to lose focus on Iraq, which will remain a strategic and important country even after the last of the 140,000 American soldiers have gone home.

Clearly Iraq is a long way from re-establishing itself as a major force in the region. In a first step, however, representatives of 35 international oil companies are to meet this month with Iraq’s oil minister in London to discuss improving Iraqi gas and oil fields. Fellow Arab countries are talking about upgrading their relations with Iraq.

Iraq is likely to play a significant role in America’s Middle East policy for decades — even as the Pentagon scales down military operations here and ramps them up in Afghanistan.

The Middle East has long confounded forecasters, and the rosy predictions from the Bush administration that Iraq would emerge as a beacon of Western-style democracy in the Arab world have been long discredited.

However unlikely it may seem today, a relatively stable Iraq would have all the cards necessary to emerge as a major player in the Persian Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing for leadership.

Those three countries account for most of the population and most of the oil in the Gulf, which has about 60 percent of the world’s proven reserves.

How the three deal with one another will shape the Middle East for decades.

Iraq’s vast oil reserves alone should guarantee the country a major regional role.

Current estimates put Iraq’s proven oil reserves at 115 billion barrels. But many experts believe that figure could rise by another 70 billion to 80 billion barrels once better security allows for renewed exploration.

If those estimates prove accurate, Iraq would have the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves behind Saudi Arabia and ahead of Iran.

As Iran and Saudi Arabia compete for influence in the region, each has a strong interest in using Iraq as leverage against the other.

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can afford to have Iraq throw itself solidly behind the other. Each wants a stable Iraq — but not one strong enough to threaten its neighbors as when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

In competing for influence in Iraq, Iran would seem to have the advantage. Most of Iran’s nearly 70 million people are Shiites, the Muslim sect that includes about 60 percent of Iraq’s population.

Iran offered asylum to thousands of Iraqi Shiites who fled Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime. Many of them returned home to assume positions of power after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Iran has also cultivated close ties with the Kurds, who along with the Shiites have dominated political life in Iraq since the fall of Saddam.

Despite those advantages, Iran faces major obstacles in building influence in a country with bitter memories of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and a legacy of centuries of rivalry between Arabs and Persian Iran.

U.S. and Iraqi officials remain convinced Iran is financing and training Shiite extremists, although Tehran denies the allegation. Many Iraqis — both Shiites and Sunnis — view their Iranian neighbor with deep suspicion.

At the same time, Iran sees Washington’s ties to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and others in the Shiite religious parties as a potential threat.

Other Arab countries fear that Iraq will fall under Iranian domination once the Americans have gone.

Arab pessimists see a dark vision of a Middle East with Iranian clients ruling Iraq, Iranian-backed Hezbollah as the dominant political force in Lebanon and Tehran’s Hamas clients running the Palestinian entity.

Nowhere are those fears stronger than in Saudi Arabia, whose geriatric leadership has faced problems in responding to the political changes in Iraq, its northern neighbor.

The Saudis and other Sunni-dominated Arab governments maintain close ties to the United States. But their natural allies in Iraq — minority Sunnis — were fighting the Americans for most of the U.S. occupation.

Other Arab governments found it difficult to support the Shiite leadership in Baghdad while Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites were slaughtering each other in the streets.

Sectarian fighting has eased, and thousands of Sunni insurgents turned against al-Qaida and joined forces with the Americans.

Still, Arab governments have been slow to develop full diplomatic relations with Iraq, despite intense American pressure. Iraqis face enormous problems in seeking refuge elsewhere in the Arab world.

Many Iraqis resent the Arab attitude and fear that shunning them only enhances the influence of Iran, which embraced the new Iraqi government.

All these uncertainties will probably encourage Washington to pay close attention to Iraq for years.

“All Americans should be and are proud of the achievements in Iraq and the American role in bringing about the change,” U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said recently.

Losing interest in Iraq, he warned, risks paying “a major long-term price.”

Robert H. Reid is the AP’s Baghdad bureau chief and has covered Iraq since before the U.S.-led invasion.

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