- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

BAGHDAD

The Arab League re- opened its Baghdad office in April for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion three years earlier amid fears of growing Iranian influence in Iraq and the increasing pullback of American troops into “enduring bases” there.

The Arabs “are worried about the future of Iraq and that it will drift out of the Arab sphere of influence,” a former high-ranking Iranian foreign policy official told The Washington Times in Tehran.

The newly appointed head of the Arab League’s mission in Iraq is Moroccan diplomat Mokhtar Lamani. His Baghdad brief is to consult with Iraq’s factionalized politicians and hasten the creation of an Iraqi government more than four months after December elections brought a Shi’ite Muslim coalition to power.

Mr. Lamani also will organize a “reconciliation conference” next month that is intended to bring together all the Iraqi parties. One of his first steps was to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

The Arab League resisted opening an office in Baghdad after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to show its disapproval of a war that was not sanctioned by the United Nations. But Iraq’s gradual collapse into civil strife has led concerned Arab leaders to re-engage with the troubled country.

Last week, the Iraqi Defense Ministry accused Iran of shelling in northern Iraq twice in two weeks, then sending troops there to fight anti-Iranian Kurdish guerrillas. Tehran denied the accusations as tensions rose between two neighbors that fought each other for eight years to a standstill in the 1980s.

Last month, senior intelligence officials from Turkey and several Arab countries met secretly to coordinate government strategies in case a civil war erupts in Iraq, Arab diplomats seeking to block Iranian interference told the Associated Press.

Anxiety and distrust

Concern about Tehran’s influence in Shi’ite majority Iraq has bubbled over into anxious statements from Arab leaders.

“The threat of breakup in Iraq is a huge problem for the countries of the region, especially if the fighting is on a sectarian basis,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said. “This type of fighting sucks in other countries.”

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, speaking last week on Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television, accused Arab Shi’ites of holding primary allegiance to Iran rather than to their own government, which is dominated by the rival Sunni branch of Islam.

Mr. Mubarak’s comment laid bare the distrust with which the region’s Sunni rulers regard Arab Shi’ites, and was greeted with protests from Iraqi politicians.

“Such statements make it more difficult for any serious Arab initiative in Iraq,” said Joseph Bahout, a Paris-based Lebanese political analyst. “They also highlight the dangers of any open Arab alignment in the U.S.-Iran confrontation.”

The Arab League’s return to what was once one of the most powerful Arab states signals an escalation in the Arab-Iranian struggle over Iraq’s future.

“The Arabs feel that Iraq is a slippery fish,” the Iranian official said. “They want to catch this fish and bring it to the Arab family. So they don’t want there to be a deal between Iran and the United States on Iraq. They don’t want to see Iran being the gendarme of the Gulf again.”

Aware of Arab wariness of Iran, Vice President Dick Cheney made a rare foray to the region in January, visiting U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He reportedly suggested an Egypt-led, Arab multinational force under Arab League auspices, despite Iraqi politicians’ statements that they might accept troops from other Muslim countries, but not from direct neighbors.

An Arab multinational peacekeeping force might enter Iraq under Arab League or U.N. auspices. Sources say Egypt would provide most of the manpower and military hardware, with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states concerned about the rise in Iranian influence providing money. But those watching the Middle East warn that the entry of a pan-Arab force could turn Iraq into a proxy battleground with Iran and dangerously escalate a regional rivalry that has until now been simmering on a diplomatic level.

“As the Arab proverb goes: ‘When bears fight, grass dies,’ ” Raghida Dergham wrote last week in the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat. “The Arab region is the grass that is expected to die while Iran plans to be a member of the club, which includes Israel and Turkey, at the expense of Arabs.”

Iran pledges peace

Tehran has sought to allay Arab fears about its role in Iraq and about its military exercises in the Persian Gulf, a few miles away from five other oil-producing countries. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the official Iranian press service, reported Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar as saying that his country seeks “peace and friendship” with its neighbors.

Mr. Najjar has proposed that Iran sign a nonaggression pact with its neighbors and sponsor joint military war games.

In Baghdad, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Colton gave no “specific comment on this Arab League issue” but said Mr. Khalilzad “has spoken a number of times on the importance of neighboring and other Arab countries coming in to support the new, democratic Iraq.”

Mr. Mubarak, a secular Sunni leader, would be happy to crack down on Muslim radicals, just as he virtually destroyed Islamist movements in Egypt in the early 1990s.

“The Egyptian regime has been afraid of Iranian-inspired Muslim radicalism ever since the 1979 revolution” in Iran, Middle East specialist Juan Cole said. “The opportunity to counter Iranian influence in Arab Iraq could seem attractive to the Egyptian military, and could strike them as a form of self-defense.”

On the streets of Baghdad, the daily violence has reached such proportions that Iraqis are desperate for any intervention that might end the circle of violence. For Waleed, an embassy driver from a Baghdad-based Sunni clan, Iraq’s leaders have proved that they are incapable of stemming the violence.

“If they brought a Jew in to run this country, he would do it better than the people we have now,” he said. “We’ve tried the Iraqis and they’re useless. Now let’s try anyone who will govern justly.”


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