Iraqi Politicians Seek Input From Tehran, Riyadh

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki i

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki addresses a campaign rally held in Baghdad in February 2010. Since election results have been released, Sunni and Shiite politicians in Iraq have gone to Riyadh to speak to the Saudi king, with one notable exception — Maliki. Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki addresses a campaign rally held in Baghdad in February 2010. Since election results have been released, Sunni and Shiite politicians in Iraq have gone to Riyadh to speak to the Saudi king, with one notable exception — Maliki.

Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

On the same night the results from Iraq's March 7 election came out, several key Iraqi leaders flew to Tehran, prompting a flurry of concern that Iran was putting a hand on the scales of Baghdad's government formation.

Now, it's Saudi Arabia: Every day this week, at least one key leader, starting with the Iraqi president, made a trip to meet with the king in Riyadh.

Iraqi politicians say they are forming a coalition government at their own pace, through a truly Iraqi process of consultation. It may seem strange then, that the most substantive meetings should happen in neighboring countries.

When Iraqi politicians went to Tehran, Sunni leaders and the U.S. Embassy cried foul. This week, when Iraqi leaders went to Saudi Arabia, it was the other side's turn to complain.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, called a news conference to denounce those outside powers trying to influence the new government. Iraq's future must be in Iraqi hands, he said, making clear references to Saudi Arabia.

"Some still insist on interfering with Iraqi issues. They started by feeding those who violated our Iraqi ways with killing and terrorism, and hosting the evil preachers, used them and accepted their help," Maliki said. "Now they finish by interfering with our elections and government formation."

The meetings in Saudi Arabia might have seemed a simple tit for tat: Iran meeting with Shiite leaders and then Sunnis going to Riyadh. But the Saudis also invited Shiite and Kurdish leaders — with one conspicuous omission: Maliki.

Najmaldin Karim is a Kurdish member of the incoming parliament. He points out that the snub of Maliki is discordant with the overall message that Iraqi leaders brought back from Riyadh.

"Saudi Arabia extended invitations to the leaders of Iraq to indicate to them that they do not have preference who will become prime minister as long as this person is capable of unifying Iraq," Karim says.

But both sets of meetings carry veiled messages as well, says Karim. Iran has pull with Shiite politicians and has been accused of arming Shiite militias in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries financially support Sunni politicians. But along with Syria, they allegedly facilitated the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

At the moment, both violent trends are in abeyance. The region is slowly learning the same lesson that Iraq needs to learn, says Karim.

"The Sunni minority has not come to terms that they no longer will be able to rule Iraq as they have for the last 85 to 90 years. And the Shia will rule Iraq as a majority, but also have to include others within our government — the Sunnis, the Kurds have to be partners," he says.

In public messages, at least, the neighbors seem to concur. Shortly after the meetings in Tehran this month, the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad gave a rare — perhaps unique — news conference, to announce Iran's support for a consensus government including Ayad Allawi, who is supported by most Sunnis. The Saudis have announced the same best intentions for Iraq.

Many Iraqis don't believe a word from either side. Ameer al-Deen, a clothing salesman in downtown Baghdad, gave a typical response.

"Don't tell me that the Saudis or Iranians will ever look out for our best interests," says Deen.

He adds that if anyone really wants to solve Iraq's problems, they'd better do it here in Iraq.

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