Iraqi Leaders Sit Out Meetings with Arab Ministers

Leaders of Iraq's interim government boycott a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, where the agenda includes Iraq's growing sectarian conflict. Iraqi officials were angered by remarks from Egypt's President Mubarak, who said Iraq's Shiites are more loyal to Tehran than to Baghdad.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The current situation in Iraq was a subject of a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo today, but there was only one delegate there actually from Iraq, and he watched from the sidelines. Iraq announced a boycott of the meeting after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Iraq was all but in a state of civil war. He also suggested that Iraq's Shiite majority was loyal to Iran.

As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, Arab analysts say the lack of trust in the region is helping to keep Iraq isolated.

PETER KENYON reporting:

Fears of a civil war in Iraq and worries about Iran's growing influence on its neighbor are nothing new. But President Mubarak sparked a furor among Iraq's Shiite leaders when he said the country was virtually in a civil war already and wondered aloud how Iraq could establish a stable government when, in his view, so many Iraqi Shiites were loyal to the religious regime in Iran.

President HOSNI MUBARAK (Egypt): (Through Translator) Definitely Iran has influence on the Shia. This is not just talk. They have many people. The Shiite loyalty is always to Iran. Most of them are loyal to Iran and not to their countries.

KENYON: The remarks, aired last weekend on the Al-Arabia satellite news channel, sparked angry protests from Iraqi leaders and criticism from the Bush administration. Although Iraq said it would boycott today's meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo, diplomats said the Iraqi delegate to the Arab League did watch some of the meeting from the sidelines, leaving Iraq's seat empty.

Analyst Mohammad Kamal Saeed (ph) at the American University in Cairo said Mubarak's gloomy assessment would be understandable coming from the street. But he says Arab leaders know the chaos in Iraq is being fomented by small groups of Sunnis and Shiites, so it can't yet be called a full-scale civil war. Syed also says it may be that some of the violence on the Shiite side is coming from within the government, but that's hardly cause to say all Iraqi Shiites aren't loyal to their own country.

Mr. MOHAMMAD KAMAL SAEED (American University in Cairo): I think this is having, you know, serious implications for Egyptian foreign policy and also for relations between Egypt and these Shia communities throughout the Arab world.

KENYON: In fact, Mubarak's comments were relatively mild compared to those of other Arab officials. Last fall, a Saudi foreign minister, while on an official visit to Washington, said “U.S. policy in Iraq is widening sectarian divisions to the point of effectively handing the country to Iran. Iraq is disintegrating.” Analysts say although the Saudi comments were aimed primarily at U.S. policies in Iraq, they reflect the misgivings many Sunni-led Arab regimes have with the Shiite-led interim government in Baghdad.

Mohammed Al-Sayad Saeed (ph) at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies says there's more than a hint of hypocrisy in these statements. He says Arab leaders seem to want to rail against Iranian influence in Iraq without making any serious commitment themselves.

Mr. MOHAMMED AL-SAYAD SAEED (Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies): There's also a lack of guts when it comes to the desire to balance the Iranian influence Arab countries feel, to establish even humanitarian presence inside Iraq. So it wouldn't be strange for Iraqis to look for those who are willing to invest serious commitments and obligations inside Iraq.

KENYON: Most analysts agree that Arab regimes have a strong interest in encouraging the American military presence to remain until Iraq is more stable. But Saeed says now is the time for Arab leaders to be planning for a next phase. Ideally, he says, that would include some kind of Arab peacekeeping force. But failing that, there should at least be a much greater humanitarian effort.

Mr. SAEED: You know, Iraq has great need for orphanages, for food relief, for, you know, every kind of support. So at least, you know, Arabs should combine and get mobilized resources to establish, at least, humanitarian presence inside this beleaguered country.

KENYON: In a statement after today's meeting, the Arab League said it regretted Iraq's lack of participation and would try to open an office in Baghdad by the end of April as previously agreed. The statement said consultations would continue on a reconciliation meeting of the various Iraqi factions.

As expected, there was no commitment to new measures to stabilize Iraq's security situation, which has long hampered humanitarian efforts there. Analysts say unless Iraqi politicians can form a unity government and ease the violence, extremists in the country will continue trying to drive Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds into a full-blown civil war.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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