- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, pressing Arab nations for financial and political support of Iraq, said today that Baghdad’s neighbors had taken a “good step forward” by pledging to do more to include the country in regional affairs.

Bahrain’s foreign minister said Iraq and Rice, at the meetings of Persian Gulf states here, had answered many of its neighbors’ concerns, especially about Iraq’s political situation. The minister, Sheik Khalid bin-Khalifa, said Iraq will now be included in future such meetings as a matter of course.

“That’s a very good step forward for the reintegration of Iraq into regional affairs,” Rice told a news conference with Bin-Khalifa at her side.

The Bush administration has challenged Arab states to answer security improvements and political advances in Iraq with financial and political support, and Rice said there are few excuses left for delay. She is on a three-day Mideast trip, and yesterday visited Baghdad, where she said she was encouraged about progress despite a recent uptick in violence.

Bin-Khalifa said Iraq’s foreign minister and Rice together had given encouraging assurances at meetings and a luncheon today.

“When we first started this meeting today we had questions of the ambiguity of the picture in Iraq, the political picture, and the secretary of state,” along with Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, “gave us very good explanations,” Bin-Khalifa said.

Today’s meetings brought no announcements of new forgiveness of Iraq’s debt. The U.S. has canceled all of Iraqi’s prewar debt of $4.1 billion and other primarily non-Arab members have agreed to cancel 80 percent. Numerous Arab creditors, including Saudi Arabia, have pledged to help Iraq recover financially by forgiving debt but follow-through has been slow.

“The terms have long been known. It’s just a matter of getting the negotiations done,” Rice said following her meetings with the Arab diplomats.

A larger gathering of Arab states and Iraq’s international backers is planned for tomorrow in Kuwait. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, flying to Kuwait today, told the Associated Press that he would speak frankly to Arab diplomats.

“There are countries that support the political process and are opening embassies here,” he said, a reference to unfulfilled pledges from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. “We need the others to open embassies here, too. There are some nations that don’t recognize our political process and … are inciting strife,” he continued. “I am bewildered by the position of these nations.”

Rice signed an agreement today with the United Arab Emirates for cooperation as the oil-rich Gulf federation works to develop civilian nuclear power, and was holding private talks with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister.

Shi’ite Iran is the subtext of two days of Iraq-themed meetings Rice is attending. She has been making the case that majority-Shiite Iraq is an Arab state, with an Arab identity that deserves solidarity from its majority-Sunni neighbors.

The Bush administration is arguing that although Iran has pull inside Iraq, Sunni states nervous about Iran’s spreading influence in the Mideast should not use that as an excuse to give Iraq the cold shoulder.

Bin-Khalifa sought to downplay Iran’s influence in Iraq.

“We have never seen the Iraqi government as an arm of Iran,” he told the news conference today.

Rice is trying to make the case that much has changed inside Iraq in the last year, owing partly to the additional presence of American troops and also to what she says is growing political cohesion among Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic factions.

“Adjustments are going to have to be made,” in the way Arab states regard Iraq, she said.

The United States has tried for years to rally Arab support for a post-Saddam Iraq, both for the boost that regional acceptance would give the fledgling democracy and as a bulwark against spreading Iranian influence in Iraq and elsewhere.

Arab diplomats say they want to foster long-term stability in Iraq five years after a U.S.-led invasion and occupation many of them opposed, but see little sign that the Shiite-led Iraq government will fully include Sunni Muslims in political power and oil wealth. Arab states also privately note that with less than 10 months left in office, the Bush administration has declining leverage both over Arab states and al-Maliki’s Baghdad government.

AP writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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