- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The White House said it has persuaded Iraq’s neighbors to help stabilize the country’s sectarian fighting, but has not given many details about what these Sunni-dominated governments will do to back Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government.

“What we are looking for is our allies in the region to be contributors to building a stable Iraq,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday.

Mr. Snow would not discuss any issues raised by Vice President Dick Cheney, who visited leaders in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates last week. He said that doing so would “undermine” the vice president’s mission.

He did, however, point to debt-relief talks at a conference in Egypt earlier this month as proof that “Sunni governments did step up in support of the government of Iraq.”

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Kuwait — two Sunni countries that are owed billions of dollars by Iraq stemming from Baghdad’s war with Iran in the 1980s — has made a final agreement to forgive or reduce Iraq’s debts.

Saudi Arabia, however, has promised to reduce the debt by 80 percent.

Middle East analysts said Iraq’s neighbors have reason to be hesitant in supporting the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

All of the countries Mr. Cheney visited are led by Sunni-dominated governments that fear Mr. al-Maliki’s government may be too closely aligned with Iran, a Shi’ite-led government.

Because of this perception, the Bush administration is “facing a pretty uphill struggle” in getting Iraq’s neighbors to support Iraq’s current government, said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Most of the Sunni governments in the region are following the Saudi lead. And the Saudis have not shown a lot of interest in supporting the Maliki government,” he said.

Iraq’s neighbors also are nervous that a Shi’ite-dominated government would suppress and even slaughter Sunnis when U.S. troops leave the region.

Even with the presence of U.S. troops, sectarian violence between Sunnis, who were in power under dictator Saddam Hussein, and Shi’ites, who were repressed and massacred by Saddam, has been fierce.

Wayne White, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, said the rising pace of sectarian killings may be one reason to adopt the idea of dividing Iraq into sections for the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds.

“The country is dividing itself up,” said Mr. White, who did not support the division until the sectarian killings increased in the past year.

The hope seems to be, Mr. Riedel said, for a strongman similar to Saddam to emerge and unite Sunnis under an iron-fisted rule again.

“But I think that is a very difficult sale for the United States to buy into, since Maliki was elected under a democratic system that we supported and we pushed Iraq to pursue,” Mr. Riedel said.

National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said it is important for Iraq’s neighbors to support the al-Maliki government.

“It’s the democratically elected government of Iraq, and it needs to be given the opportunity to deliver for its people.”

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