- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

KUWAIT CITY — Arab governments are skeptical about the ability of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to improve the security situation in his country, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday after a series of meetings with leaders in the Middle East.

Arab officials support the goals of President Bush’s new Iraq policy — quelling the violence and stabilizing the country — but are not prepared to fully back the proposal because of its reliance on Mr. al-Maliki’s performance, she said.

“There is skepticism about whether or not the Iraqi government is going to do the things it has said it’s going to do,” Miss Rice told a group of reporters in Kuwait, the last stop on her tour in the region.

Miss Rice has met principally with Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Persian Gulf, most of whom share concern about the rising power of Mr. al-Maliki and his fellow Shi’ite leaders in Iran and southern Lebanon.

“There are concerns about whether the Maliki government is prepared to take an evenhanded, nonsectarian path. There is no doubt about that,” Miss Rice said.

“But not because this isn’t a group of people who want very desperately to get it done [or] because they are people who don’t understand the responsibilities, but [because] this is very hard.”

Mr. Bush said yesterday that the chaotic execution of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein looked like “kind of a revenge killing” and showed that the al-Maliki government “has still got some maturation to do.”

“I was disappointed and felt like they fumbled — particularly the Saddam Hussein execution,” Mr. Bush said in an interview with PBS’ Jim Lehrer.

At least 65 students and staff were killed and more than 100 injured in a car bombing outside Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University yesterday.

Also, the United Nations released a report estimating that 34,000 Iraqi civilians died in violence last year.

Miss Rice, who came to the region to seek support for Mr. Bush’s new plan to add 21,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, met in Kuwait with eight Arab foreign ministers.

In a joint statement, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states — Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman — joined Egypt, Jordan and the United States in pledging to help Iraq find a way out of its crisis.

“Nine foreign ministers are meeting in Kuwait today precisely to prevent Iraq from sliding into civil war,” Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheik Mohammed al-Sabah said at a press conference with Miss Rice.

In Riyadh earlier yesterday, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal pointedly refused to back Mr. Bush’s plan, offering support only for its objectives.

“We agree fully with the goals set by the new strategy, which in our view are the goals that if implemented would solve the problems that face Iraq,” he said. “I cannot, for the life of me, conceive that a country like that would commit suicide.”

In Egypt on Monday, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was more generous in his backing, although he expressed hope, rather than confidence, that the new strategy will succeed.

“We are supportive of that plan because we are hopeful that [it would] ensure the stability, unity and cohesion of the Iraqi government,” Mr. Gheit said.

“We are hopeful that the plan would lead toward the dismantlement of whatever terror organizations, as well as the military militias, that are tormenting the Iraqi scene.”

Prince al-Faisal declined to say what Saudi Arabia might do if Mr. Bush’s plan does not work. But Saudi officials have suggested that they might help Iraq’s Sunnis defend themselves against Shi’ite militias.

Miss Rice warned yesterday that foreign involvement in Iraq’s infighting, no matter where it comes from, would be “disastrous.” The GCC statement also contained a warning to Iran without naming it.

“The participants expressed their collective desire to prevent Iraq from becoming a battleground for regional and international powers,” it said.

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