Monday, November 27, 2006

JERUSALEM — A weeklong, high-stakes diplomatic offensive for control of the Middle East is gathering steam as the Bush administration rallies allies against Iran’s growing influence in the region.

The diplomatic push, which began with Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday, will climax with President Bush’s meeting later this week with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan.

The goal is to marshal a force of friendly Sunni regimes against the radical leadership of Shi’ite Iran, which Washington thinks is trying to develop a nuclear bomb.

Leaders from two crucial members of that Sunni bloc — Jordan and Turkey — met for emergency talks Saturday to discuss the implications of the diplomatic drive. After the meetings, held in Amman, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Bush and al-Maliki summit was crucial for the fate of the region.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” that something “dramatic” must come out of the summit. He said the two leaders must find ways to reconcile Iraq’s various factions “and they need to do it now, because, obviously, as we’re seeing, things are beginning to spiral out of control.”

The U.S.-led alliance is attempting to mobilize a “Sunni crescent” of friendly countries, running from Oman in the east of the Persian Gulf, through Yemen and Saudi Arabia westward to Jordan, Turkey and Egypt.

It is designed to counter what many Sunni states fear is a rapidly emerging “Shi’ite crescent” of influence, that runs from Iran to Lebanon and could spread by inciting revolt among Shi’ite elements of their own populations.

The rivalry and mistrust between Sunnis and Shi’ites was exemplified in elections Saturday in Bahrain, which — like Iraq before the U.S. invasion — is a majority-Shi’ite country led by a Sunni minority.

In a sign of increasing Shi’ite self-confidence, parliamentary elections under way there have been racked by vocal opposition from the Shi’ites, who say the election was rigged to favor Sunnis.

But it is mixed-faith Iraq that lies at the heart of the weeklong diplomatic drive.

Caught between the jaws of the two sectarian crescents, Iraq was torn apart last week by bombs and tit-for-tat killings that threaten to devolve into an all-out civil war between its Sunni and Shi’ite communities.

In a signal of Iran’s own diplomatic ambitions for the region, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had been scheduled to meet his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at a summit in Tehran on Saturday, possibly with Syria attending.

But while the summit was postponed because of a curfew that means even Mr. Talabani cannot fly out of Baghdad, Iranian sources say Tehran feels it is holding all the cards as it squares up to the United States in the battle for regional influence.

“Iran is able to end the bombing campaign in Iraq and is willing to use its force to call it off — if the world gives it the future role that it expects in Iraq,” said one seasoned observer in the Iranian capital, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s a big give-and-take situation, in which no matter where you look, Iran ends up with much more in her basket than the USA.”

Despite Iranian boasts that it can control Shi’ite violence in Iraq, the dominant militia force on the streets of Baghdad remains the Mahdi’s Army militia of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

While Sheik al-Sadr is Shi’ite, he is not directly loyal to Tehran, and it remains unlikely that he will cheaply call off the force that has made him, both militarily and politically, one of the most powerful voices in Iraq.

He has threatened to exert that authority by withdrawing his support from the Iraqi government, effectively bringing it down, if the Bush and al-Maliki summit is held as planned. But the White House has insisted that the summit will go ahead.

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