Rice Pushes New U.S. Troop Buildup to Arab Leaders

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is meeting with Arab leaders to promote President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq. But Arab leaders mistrust Iraq's government and are dubious about the new proposal. In urging acceptance of the plan, Rice told her Saudi counterpart that positive change only comes out of challenging times.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is lobbying Arab allies for backing on Iraq. She's been hearing some skepticism in her meetings taking place in Kuwait. But Rice has managed to get her colleagues from the Persian Gulf, Jordan and Egypt to send a veiled message to Iran: stop meddling in Iraq. NPR's Michele Kelemen is covering the secretary's trip.

MICHELE KELEMEN: In a vast, modern palace in Kuwait City, Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Sabah hosted his colleagues for dinner as news emerged of another deadly attack near a Baghdad University.

Mr. MOHAMMED AL-SABAH (Foreign Minister, Kuwait): Very quickly, nine foreign ministers are meeting in Kuwait today to precisely prevent Iraq from sliding into a civil war. And that, I think, speaks volumes.

KELEMEN: The group includes members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan, Egypt and the U.S. They called for national reconciliation efforts in Iraq, and though their final communiqué didn't mention Iran by name, the message was clear.

Mr. AL-SABAH: We call for all countries to refrain from interfering in Iraqi internal affairs. This is something that we are all concerned about.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice came here to try to get Sunni Arab leaders to support the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq. And she's argued that the fear of rising Iranian influence draws this group together, but she's had a tough time convincing them that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki - with the help of more American troops - can tamp down the violence.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): There are concerns about whether the Maliki government is prepared to take an even-handed, non-sectarian path here. There's no doubt about that. And after - again, after all the years of deep grievance in the region within Iraq, it's not surprising that that's the case. But everybody wants to give this a chance.

KELEMEN: To get a sense of just how tepid the response has been, you only had to hear the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Saud al-Faisal, who met separately with Rice in Riyadh earlier today.

Mr. SAUD AL-FAISAL (Foreign Minister, Saudi Arabia): We are hoping that these objections will be implemented, but the means are not in our hands. They are in the hands of the Iraqis themselves.

KELEMEN: He said he can only hope that Maliki's government can bring Iraq out of what he described as a morass.

Mr. AL-FAISAL: I cannot for the life of me conceive that a country like that would commit suicide.

KELEMEN: During a break from all the meetings, Secretary of State Rice sat down with reporters in a Kuwaiti guest house to talk about her trip. She distanced herself further from the advice of one of her predecessors, who urged her to make a big diplomatic push and gather all of Iraq's neighbors - including Iran and Syria - to talk about stabilizing Iraq.

Sec. RICE: You aren't going to be successful as a diplomat if you don't understand the strategic context in which you are actually negotiating. It's not deal-making. It's not.

KELEMEN: And she's banking on what she's described as a new realignment in the Middle East, with Arab moderates trying to counter extremism. Rice told her Saudi counterpart today that positive change can only come out of challenging times. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Kuwait.

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