Middle East

U.S. Pushes Arabs to Support Iraq Constitution

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State Department officials are touring Arab capitals seeking backing for Iraq's draft constitution. Specifically, Washington wants pressure placed on Iraq's Sunnis, who stand in the way of a successful Oct. 15 referendum. But many Arab nations are not pleased with Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish-dominated government.


As Iraqis prepare to vote on a new constitution, the Bush administration is stepping up its efforts to get Iraq's neighbors more involved in supporting the process. State Department officials are hoping Arab countries will help diminish opposition to the new charter among Iraq's Sunni Arab minority. The diplomatic push comes amid increased tension between Iraq's Shiite leaders and some of its neighbors led by Sunnis. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.

PETER KENYON reporting:

With a vote on the constitution less than two weeks away, Iraq's Sunni community has been gearing up to defeat it. Officials say new voting rules approved by Iraq over the weekend make passage much more likely but also left the Sunnis more alienated than ever. Looking for support from Iraq's neighbors, State Department senior adviser James Jeffrey met with Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa and several other Arab officials. Jeffrey told reporters that Washington would like more Arab involvement in general and more contacts in particular between Sunni-led countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Iraq Sunni minority. Jeffrey qualified that with a reference to Iraq's Sunni-led insurgency, saying any contacts are welcome as long as they're limited to legitimate political forces.

Mr. JAMES JEFFREY (Senior Adviser, State Department): How they engage, who they engage with, as long as they're legitimate political forces, that's their decision, but there is a general interest on our part on more engagement with the community, with the Iraqi people.

KENYON: There are signs of some level of renewed effort. Following a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Jeddah, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said Arab League head Amre Moussa would soon go to Iraq to set up what he called a reconciliation conference. Faisal caused a stir recently with unusually frank comments suggesting that US policies were pushing Iraq toward civil war and virtually handing the country to its Shiite neighbor Iran. Iraq's interior minister hit back with a highly undiplomatic attack, calling the Saudi foreign minister a bedouin on a camel trying to instruct Iraq. The Iraqi foreign minister later apologized, but analysts say anxieties are sharping in Sunni Arab countries as Iraq Shiites consolidate their hold on power.

More tangible signs of support seem distant. The State Department's James Jeffrey was pessimistic about the prospects for Arab peacekeeping troops in Iraq anytime soon, not least, he suggested, because of resistance from the Iraqis themselves.

Mr. JEFFREY: The idea has come up several times, and it hasn't proceeded too far. The first issue, as always, is the Iraqi government has to accept any military situation. That would be something to first ask the Iraqi government how they would feel about that.

KENYON: The most explosive situation among Iraq's neighbors involves Syria. President Bashar Al-Assad is under heavy and mounting pressure over the flow of weapons and fighters into Iraq from the Syrian border. At the same time, a UN investigator is preparing a report on the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, which could implicate Syrian officials. Another State Department adviser, former ambassador and Syria expert Christopher Ross, said toppling the Assad regime is not the administration's policy but, he added, that policy is under review constantly.

Ambassador CHRISTOPHER ROSS (Syria): What we are seeking is behavior change, if not regime change. We want to keep the pressure on the government of Syria to encourage it to understand that, A, this matters a great deal to us and, B, that it should matter a great deal to Syria. So the pressure will continue.

KENYON: The administration hopes that pressure will yield more cooperation from Damascus on Iraq, but Arab analysts say that pressure and the potential for a de-stablizing crisis in the region are helping to keep Arab countries at a distance as Iraqis struggle to re-create their nation.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

MONTAGNE: Many of the tough questions facing Iraq remain largely unanswered in the country's draft constitution. An analysis at npr.org explains who must come up with the answers.

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