Arab World Uneasy with Bush's New Iraq Plan

Host John Ydstie speaks with Khaled al-Dakheel, a political sociologist at King Saud University in Riyadh about Arab reaction to President Bush's new Iraq plan, and their confidence in the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Secretary of State Rice continues her trip tomorrow in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. She'll meet with both President Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah. The purpose of the talks is not so much to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as it is to get Arab governments to buy into the president's new Iraq plan.

Joining us to discuss that issue is Khaled al- Dakheel, a political sociologist at King Saud University in Riyadh.

Welcome to the program, Professor.

Professor KHALED AL-DAKHEEL (King Saud University): Thank you.

YDSTIE: The Arab governments have been fairly muted in their response to the Bush plan for a troop escalation in Iraq so far. How would you characterize the Saudi government's position?

Prof. AL-DAKHEEL: I think the Saudi position made it clear yesterday by the foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, when he said that the government is looking for more clarification from Secretary Rice.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Do you suppose it's a matter of clarity or it's a polite way of saying we're not sure we like this?

Prof. AL-DAKHEEL: Well, you could look at it if you take into consideration the fact that the public reaction here is fiercely against this new plan. In this region, what the president said in his last speech, it's just making the same old ideas in a new rhetoric.

YDSTIE: Much of President Bush's plan relies on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki living up to his promises to deal even-handedly with both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, as well as his promises to pass legislation on oil revenue distribution and revamping de-Baathification laws. How much confidence do the Saudis have in Prime Minister Maliki and his government? After all, the Saudis are Sunni and Mr. Maliki is a Shiite.

Prof. AL-DAKHEEL: It's actually not a matter of being Shiite or being Sunni. But the problem in Iraq lies in the constitution on the basis of which the Maliki government is operating there. There is something seriously wrong with this constitution and with the political structure in Iraq. Neither Maliki nor anybody else can really make that big of a difference here. And that is really what is confusing for us here. Al-Maliki and the Shiite block are supposed to be allies of the Americans, yet the same group are allies of Iran. This is really a puzzle for us.

YDSTIE: You mentioned that the critical problem is a problem with the constitution. What specific problem, or problems, are you talking about?

Prof. AL-DAKHEEL: I'm talking about, for example, the question of federalism, and the point of insisting on making the provinces much more powerful than the central government, which means that this is a recipe for dividing the country. This means uneven distribution of wealth. This means uneven distribution of power among the regions.

YDSTIE: But President Bush's new plan is to provide greater security for Sunnis and to see to it that Prime Minister al-Maliki passes the legislation on distributing the oil evenhandedly.

Prof. AL-DAKHEEL: That's the main problem with the American approach, is that they look at things as being just a matter of military insecurity. The problem is political. You (unintelligible) the political process. You have to amend the constitution. You have to change the political structure of the Iraqi government, which is described by the Baker/Hamilton report as being a sectarian government. Many of its leaders operate on the basis of their sectarian objectives.

YDSTIE: Do the major Arab countries in the region have a similar point of view about the war in Iraq and what needs to be done there? Or are there significant difference between, for instance...

Prof. AL-DAKHEEL: I don't think there is a significant differences among Arab governments and among our people on this question. And here the president (unintelligible) his speech and just talking about more troops, more fights, more destruction, and no new ideas.

YDSTIE: Khaled al-Dakheel is a political sociologist at King Saud University in Riyadh. Thanks once again for speaking with us.

Prof. AL-DAKHEEL: Thanks.

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