Sunday, December 03, 2006


From the LATimes :

President Bush and his top advisors fanned out across the troubled Middle East over the last week to showcase their diplomatic initiatives to restore strained relationships with traditional allies and forge new ones with leaders in Iraq.

But instead of flaunting stronger ties and steadfast American influence, the president's journey found friends both old and new near a state of panic. Mideast leaders expressed soaring concern over upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy — and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse.

President Bush's summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister proved an awkward encounter that deepened doubts about the relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney's stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, yielded a blunt warning from the kingdom's leaders. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's swing through the West Bank and Israel, intended to build Arab support by showing a new U.S. push for peace, found little to work with.

In all, visits designed to show the American team in charge ended instead in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts. The trips demonstrated that U.S. allies in the region were struggling to understand what to make of the difficult relationship, and to figure whether, with a new Democratic majority taking over Congress, Bush even had control over his nation's Mideast policy.

Arabs are "trying to figure out what the Americans are going to do, and trying develop their own plans," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), one of his party's point men on Iraq. "They're trying to figure out their Plan B."

The allies' predicament was described by Jordan's King Abdullah II last week, before Bush arrived in Amman, the capital. Abdullah, one of America's steadiest friends in the region, warned that the Mideast faced the threat of three simultaneous civil wars — in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. And he made clear that the burden of dealing with it rested largely with the United States.

"Something dramatic" needed to come out of Bush's meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to defuse the three-way threat, Abdullah said, because "I don't think we're in a position where we can come back and visit the problem in early 2007."

The only regional leader to voice unqualified support for the Bush administration has been Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has gone so far as to say that the Iraq invasion contributed to regional stability.

To Middle East observers, Bush can no longer speak for the United States as he did before because of the domestic pressure for a change of course in Iraq, said Nathan Brown, a specialist on Arab politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"He can talk all he wants about 'staying until the job is done,' but these leaders can read about the American political scene and see that he may not be able to deliver that," Brown said.

The Bush-Maliki meeting Thursday, closely watched around the world in anticipation of a possible change in U.S. strategy, produced no shift in declared aims. Rather, it resulted in diplomatic stumbles that seemed to belie the leaders' claims that their relationship was intact.

On the eve of the summit, a leaked memo written by Bush's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, showed that U.S. officials questioned Maliki's abilities. But the memo also was a reminder of dwindling U.S. influence over Iraq. Some of the steps that Hadley said the Iraqis should take, such as providing public services to Sunni Arabs as well as Shiites, were moves that the Americans had demanded for many months, without success.

The leak of the memo cast a shadow over the summit, and Maliki abruptly canceled the first scheduled meeting, a conversation among Bush, Maliki and Abdullah. White House aides insisted that the cancellation was not a snub.

During the trip, Bush was unable to distance himself from the fierce debate about Iraq policy back home. The president felt the need to respond to news accounts saying that an advisory panel on Iraq would urge a gradual withdrawal of combat troops from the region. He insisted that suggestions for such a "graceful exit" were not realistic.

Cheney's trip to talk to Saudi King Abdullah was far less visible than Bush's mission, but helped to make painfully clear the gap between U.S. goals and those of its Arab allies.

U.S. officials said Cheney initiated the trip. But foreign diplomats said that Saudi leaders sought the visit to express their concern about the region, including fears of a U.S. departure and what they see as excessive American support for the Shiite faction in Iraq.

After the meeting with Cheney, Saudi officials released an unusual statement pointedly highlighting American responsibility for deterioration of stability in the region.

Expressing deeper unhappiness with the United States, leaders from Jordan, Egypt and Persian Gulf countries told Rice during her trip to an economic development conference in Jordan on Friday that the U.S. had a responsibility to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they and many analysts viewed as the key to regional stability.

Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, urged greater U.S. action, warning that the Middle East was becoming "an abyss…. The region is facing real failure."

From the UK Telegraph :

The gulf's two military powers, Sunni-Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, are lining up behind their warring religious brethren in Iraq in a potentially explosive showdown, as expectations grow in both countries that America is preparing a pull-out of its troops.

The Saudis are understood to be considering providing Sunni military leaders with funding, logistical support and even arms, as Iran already does for Shia militia in Iraq.

The strategy — outlined in an article last week by Nawaf Obaid, a senior security adviser to the kingdom's government — risks spiralling into a proxy war between Saudi and Iranian-backed factions in the next development in Iraq's vicious sectarian conflict.

Saudi Arabia, America's closest ally in the Arab world, is considering backing anti-US insurgents because it is so alarmed that Sunnis in Iraq will be left to their fate — military and political — at the hands of the Shia majority.

Saudi fears were strengthened as it emerged that some senior US intelligence officials are urging the Bush administration to abandon stalled attempts to reach a compromise with Sunni dissidents and adopt a controversial "pick a winner" strategy instead, giving priority to Shia and Kurd political factions.

The proposal is also known as the "80 per cent solution" since the Sunnis, who ruled the country under Saddam Hussein, comprise just 20 per cent of Iraq's 26 million population. It has been put forward as part of a crash White House review of Iraq strategy. Its backers claim that ambitious attempts to woo anti-US Sunni insurgents have failed, and now risk alienating Shia leaders as well, leaving the US without strong political allies in Iraq.

From the Khaleej Times :

French President Jacques Chirac’s warnings in 2003 that a US invasion of Iraq would set the Mideast on fire, encouraging terrorism and producing a disaster have been tragically borne out by events.

Iraq is falling ever deeper into chaos and sectarian conflict. Lebanon teeters on the brink of civil war.

The agonies of Palestine — now the world’s largest outdoor prison — continue without relent.

Iran’s power and influence are surging.

For the latter, thank Washington, which overthrew two of Iran’s bitterest enemies, Taliban and Saddam Hussein, then stuck US ground forces in the $250 million per day Iraq quagmire.

As Iraq turns into a nightmare of carnage and hate, President Bush and mentor Dick Cheney rushed to the Mideast last week to urge their local allies to pull America’s bacon out of the fire.

But Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Al Maliki, governs only over Baghdad’s US-protected Green Zone. The US controls what passes for Iraq’s police and armed forces. Maliki has no army of his own; his Shia supporters are divided and feuding. How can Bush expect a powerless prime minister to do what the mighty US cannot?

At least, Maliki had the pluck to make a symbolic protest by refusing to meet with Bush for dinner in Amman after humiliating reports leaked in Washington the US intended to dump him.

So much for Iraq ‘democracy.’

Washington may be headed towards installing a ruthless Saddam clone, either a former CIA ‘asset’ or some iron-fisted general. What western reporters term the Iraqi Army is really a collection of Shia militias, death squads and mercenaries, many former convicts. The US occupation’s extensive use of Shia death squads to fight the Sunni resistance has played a key role in igniting Iraq’s current sectarian bloodbath.

This little-known story is a major scandal. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Jordan warn they may send troops into Iraq to protect its Sunni minority from ethnic cleansing by the Shia majority.

Such a move could provoke the powerful Turkish Army to invade independence-seeking Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. Iran would be quickly drawn into the melee. Iraq’s neighbours deeply fear its chaos will spread across their borders, with dangerous, unpredictable consequences for all concerned.

Once Washington utters the dreaded ‘W’ word — withdrawal’ — Iraqis working for the US occupation will flee to the Sunni or Shia opposition. Iran’s influence in Iraq will soar. America’s Arab allies will be left facing severe external and internal dangers. But President Bush keeps insisting ‘no retreat.’ He still seems unable to see the writing on the wall in Babylon.