Politics & Government

Regional talks on Iraq risky for U.S.

WASHINGTON - The U.S. faces choices and risks this weekend at an international conference in Iraq: Does it sweet-talk or strong-arm adversaries Iran and Syria, and can it talk to them at all without raising suspicions from its moderate Arab allies?

U.S. officials are being coy for now, but the gathering poses dangers for Washington beyond the appearance of a rethinking in policy toward nations it accuses of bankrolling or abetting terrorism and violence.

The Iraqi government and Arab countries have broken into bitter squabbling ahead of Saturday's meeting in Baghdad, and the United States is in the middle. The conference is meant to be the first in a series aimed at reducing violence in Iraq.

Sunni-led Arab governments plan to use the conference to press for a greater role in Iraq for the country's Sunni minority. That has rankled Iraq's Shiite leaders, who believe the Sunnis are trying to reverse the Shiites' newfound power after decades of being marginalized under Saddam Hussein's Sunni minority rule.

Looming over the dispute is alarm among Sunni states over the rising influence of Shiite Iran, in Iraq and elsewhere.

Those Sunni states include U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, which are traditional power brokers in the region with influence over the price of oil and the course of peace efforts with Israel.

"This is a conference about Iraq, but Iraq is almost beside the point," said Steven Cook, a Mideast expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "There is only so much outside powers can do" to lessen violence in Iraq, but they face risks to their own interests from the rising chaos there, Cook said.

The United States has struggled to rally its Arab allies behind the Shiite-led government since the fall of Saddam in 2003 and hopes the Saturday meeting will be a chance to show Arab support for Baghdad.

But Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which opposed the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam, have remained deeply suspicious of the Shiites, accusing them of sidelining Iraq's Sunni minority and being proxies for Iran.

Arab states are likely to try to win U.S. support for their demands, increasing the pressure on Baghdad. Iran has vowed to support its Shiite allies in the Iraqi government - but is also concerned the U.S. will press it on accusations that Tehran is supporting Shiite militants blamed for some of the worst bloodshed in Iraq.

The Bush administration resisted the notion of an international gathering when the blue ribbon Iraq Study Group urged it in December, and rejected a recommended outreach to Iran and Syria.

Washington agreed to the session largely because it thinks it holds better cards for a diplomatic confrontation with Iran. It is also under political pressure at home to appear more flexible in its prosecution of an unpopular war, and under diplomatic pressure abroad to do something to counter Iran's rise as a regional power.

"If we are approached over orange juice by the Syrians or the Iranians to discuss an Iraq-related issue that is germane to ... a stable, secure, peaceful, democratic Iraq, we are not going to turn and walk away," said David Satterfield, the top State Department adviser on Iraq.

Although the United States apparently won't seek out such contact and would limit the topics discussed, the shift is significant. In December, days after the panel chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., presented its study, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran and Syria would try to claim too high a price for cooperation over Iraq.

Rice said then that if Iran and Syria, which the United States accuses of fomenting terrorism in the Middle East, really wanted to help bring peace to Iraq, they would do so on their own. She noted that the Iraqi government has contacts with both countries and is capable of engaging in its own diplomacy.

Iran and Syria share borders with Iraq. Satterfield said that at Saturday's conference, the United States will accuse Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq, and restate its claim that Iran is supplying particularly lethal bombs that have killed U.S. forces.

The Bush administration is leery of contacts with Iran that would allow the Shiite clerical leaders to try to lessen United Nations sanctions over its nuclear program, in return for help in Iraq.

Similarly, Rice has warned that Syria would try to turn talks with the United States into leverage to sink international efforts to investigate the assassination of a Lebanese politician.

U.S. officials now say that any contact with Iran at the conference or beyond will not stray into the nuclear issue.

In the meantime, the United States has made a very public show of military force in the Persian Gulf, arrested alleged Iranian agents in Iraq and won initial U.N. sanctions against Iran. Although weak, the sanctions are symbolic, and can chill Iranian business deals and influence abroad, U.S. officials argue.


Associated Press writer Salah Nasrawi contributed to this report from Cairo.


EDITOR'S NOTE - Anne Gearan covers diplomacy and foreign affairs for The Associated Press.