U.S. efforts gain tepid support

Arabs warn against interference in Iraq

January 17, 2007|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KUWAIT CITY -- A group of eight Middle Eastern countries joined the United States yesterday in warning against foreign interference in Iraq, marking a small step in U.S. efforts to win support in the region for pacifying Iraq and resisting Iranian influence.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and five Persian Gulf states cited "the principle of noninterference" in their first joint communique. The countries, dominated by Sunni Muslims, also welcomed U.S. efforts to rebuild Shiite-led Iraq with an "inclusive political process" and to defend the Persian Gulf.

Foreign ministers of the group issued the statement during a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been traveling in the region this week to build support for President Bush's new Iraq policy.

The Bush administration convened the group for the first time in September, proposing collaboration on security and other issues. But although Sunni nations in the region are anxious about the rise of Iran, which like Iraq is led by Shiites, some members of the group have resisted suggestions to form a stronger alliance, fearing that it would be provocative to Tehran.

The statement did not mention Iran by name, nor did it warn against Tehran's nuclear proliferation, despite U.S. concerns about the regime's efforts to enrich uranium. The statement welcomed Bush's commitment to Iraq and the region but did not specifically endorse his plan announced last week to increase U.S. forces in Iraq by 21,500 troops.

The U.S. effort to build support got a lukewarm reception in Saudi Arabia, a key ally.

In an appearance with Rice yesterday morning, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said his government agreed with Bush's goals. But he stopped short of declaring that he favored the U.S. troop increase.

"We agree with the objectives," said Prince Saud, whose government is concerned about what it sees as the mistreatment of the Sunni minority in Iraq. "We are hoping these objectives will be implemented, but the means are not in our hands. They are in the hands of the Iraqis themselves."

Rice, who has also visited Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Kuwait this week, portrayed the regional reaction in a more positive light.

While she did not claim backing for the specifics of the Bush plan, she told reporters that "there's very good support for the American commitment there; there's very good support for the objective the president wants to achieve."

Asked about the Saudi foreign minister's comments, she acknowledged: "I do think there's skepticism about whether or not the Iraqi government is going to do the things it says it's going to do. Everyone is concerned as to the Iraqi willingness now to do all the things that it needs to do."

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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