U.S. Stands Apart from Talks by Iraq's Neighbors

Iraqis clean up the scene of a car bomb. Credit: WISSAM AL-OKAILI/AFP/Getty Images. i i

Iraqi youth Wednesday clean up the wreckage left behind in Baghdad by a car bomb that exploded on Tuesday. Wissam al-Okaili/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Wissam al-Okaili/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqis clean up the scene of a car bomb. Credit: WISSAM AL-OKAILI/AFP/Getty Images.

Iraqi youth Wednesday clean up the wreckage left behind in Baghdad by a car bomb that exploded on Tuesday.

Wissam al-Okaili/AFP/Getty Images

One of the many options for trying to stabilize Iraq is to include its neighbors in the process. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Iran all have an interest in making sure the violence in Iraq doesn't spread across their borders. But the U.S. has refused to participate in talks with the group.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Here are some ideas for improving the situation in Iraq. U.S. and Iraqi officials propose increasing the number of Iraqi security forces, perhaps by tens of thousands. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he may approve. So that's one option. Another increasingly popular idea is to include Iraq's neighbors in the process to help stabilize the country.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: When the U.S. military invaded Iraq in March 2003, it was inevitable that the half a dozen countries surrounding Iraq would be affected by the war. Now that the situation in Iraq is spiraling out of control, those neighbors should have a role in a stabilization process says Phebe Marr, a Mideast analyst and author of The Modern History of Iraq.

Ms. Phebe Marr (Author, The Modern History of Iraq): We have a state that's collapsing, weak, engaged in all sorts of strife in a vacuum. And in a vacuum, neighbors will protect their own interests. None of the neighbors want this kind of instability - ethnic and sectarian strife spilling across their borders.

NORTHAM: Already, neighboring states have seen some spillover. Wayne White, the former head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team, says Jordan and Syria are dealing with a huge number of Iraqi refugees flowing across their border, and so would be open to discussing Iraq's future with the U.S.

Mr. WAYNE WHITE (Former State Department Official): If sectarian violence were to escalate much beyond current levels, you could see many, many more Sunni Arab refugees pouring out of provinces like al-Anbar and into Syria and Jordan. So one thing that Syria would definitely get out of this is perhaps avoiding even as many as a million additional refugees coming out of Iraq.

NORTHAM: Also fearful of a refugee influx, Saudi Arabia is going ahead with plans to build a $12 billion electronic fence that would virtually seal its 560-mile border with Iraq. But Phebe Marr says there's more at stake than a flood of refugees. Each of Iraq's neighbors wants to prevent the others from becoming dominant in the region. Marr points to Saudi Arabia, led by a Sunni Islamic regime.

Ms. MARR: They're extremely worried about the rise of Shia identity and Iranian influence. The last thing they want is a Shia-dominated government in Iraq that is pro-Iranian and over which Iran has a great deal of influence.

NORTHAM: There's a complicated, swirling nest of sponsor states and clients operating in Iraq: Shiite militias with allegiance to Iraqi or Iranian leaders, Sunni elements attached to radical Saudi clerics, Kurds who want an independent state, and Turkey, which will fight against that.

Still, Chas Freeman, the president of the Middle East Policy Council, says the regional powers fear what could happen if the conflict moves beyond Iraq's borders and are trying to resolve it on their own.

Mr. CHAS FREEMAN (President, Middle East Policy Council): Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria and Egypt have been meeting regularly to see whether there is some way of helping to dampen down the situation.

NORTHAM: Freeman says the regional players need U.S. help and input to propel the talks into action. But it's unlikely the U.S. will get involved with all six neighbors. The Bush administration refuses to have any dialogue with Syria or Iran, even though Iran holds enormous sway in Iraq.

Nawaf Obaid runs the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, an independent research group that advises the Saudi government. Obaid says Washington is right to be skeptical of the Tehran government's intentions toward Iraq.

Mr. NAWAF OBAID (Saudi National Security Assessment Project): How can Iran be part of the solution when it's been so much part of the disorder there? It will have to be a huge, I mean 180 degree turnaround for the Iranians if they're going to suddenly become part of the stability process.

NORTHAM: Still, Iran is a fact of life in the region. Chas Freeman says the Bush administration needs to rethink its stand of Iran, especially if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq.

Mr. FREEMAN: What will be left behind will be very much affected by what these neighbors do with their particular clients and friends inside Iraq and what they do with each other. And I don't see the United States being able to extricate ourselves from Iraq without dealing with that regional context.

NORTHAM: It's unclear whether Iraq will allow its neighbors to help reconcile its problems. The country may have had enough meddling in its affairs by outsiders.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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