Kuwait Warily Watching U.S. on Iraq, Iran
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The U.S. government says Arab states are alarmed over Iran's destabilizing influence on Iraq, and that is bringing Mideast states more aligned with Washington's policies. However, official Arab support for President Bush's new Iraq plan is accompanied by deep skepticism. Arab analysts say there is little evidence that the White House is any more savvy about the region today than when it began the invasion of Iraq. And that signals more turbulence ahead.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Kuwait.
PETER KENYON: Worries about sectarian conflict are everywhere in the Middle East these days, from Saudi Arabia's eastern and southern districts, to Bahrain, to Kuwait, authorities are on alert for Sunni-Shiite tension.
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KENYON: The Shiite Ashura rites in Kuwait City passed without incident last week. But the morning rituals for the long ago murder of the Shiite martyr Hussein took place under an extremely heavy police presence.
A leading Shiite moderate, professor Abdullah Sahar at Kuwait University, says everyone here is mindful of what happened some 20 years ago. After Kuwait backed Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war, angry Kuwaiti Shiites launched violent attacks that led to a severe crackdown by Kuwait security forces. A few years later, Sahar notes, Saddam turned his army against Kuwait despite its earlier support, giving the Kuwaitis a blunt lesson in hard-nosed politics.
Professor ABDULLAH SAHAR (Political Science, Kuwait University): We learned that Kuwait is targeted because it is Kuwait, regardless whether Shia or Sunni. We have to utilize rationality rather than just based on a religion or based on an ideology.
KENYON: Now Kuwait is facing in Iraq where civilian bloodshed is a daily occurrence, the Sunni minority has lost most of its political power, and the Shiite-led government appears to be growing ever closer to Iran. Analyst and businessman Adnen al-Sultan(ph) says Arab countries have long understood Iran's desire to boost its influence in the Middle East.
Mr. ADNE AL-SULTAN (Analyst): Their fingerprints is everywhere and the Palestinian conflict and the Lebanese and role of the Syrian, and of course it is obvious in the Iraqi situation. Definitely it's a power struggle.
KENYON: As Kuwait watches the U.S. in Iraq struggle to keep the country from collapsing into civil war, it finds itself in an awkward, if familiar, position. Kuwait is solidly behind Washington's efforts to stabilize Iraq and at the same time extremely worried that American hawks will push the current policy of isolating Iran into a military option.
Political scientist Ibrahim Al-Hadban at Kuwait University says Kuwait's biggest fear is that it could be Iraq all over again.
Professor IBRAHIM AL-HADBAN (Political Science, Kuwait University): I mean, let's assume that you topple the system or the regime in Iran. Then what? That's even worse than what's going on in Iraq. But the problem is with the Bush administration, the guy is not showing any reason. He's not showing that he really understands the region and he's dealing accordingly.
KENYON: On one point, analyst Abdullah Sahar says the U.S. does appear to have learned from its experience in Iraq. He says, as a military matter, controlling Baghdad is the key to controlling Iraq and the new Bush plan seems to grasp that. But he wonders if the American public and the next American president will have the stomach for the long road ahead in Iraq.
Prof. SAHAR: Number one, if you pull out from this country under this kind of chaos, probably civil war will be broke out. And there will be interference from different countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries. Al-Qaida will find it very easy for them to bring their volunteers there. Then the instability will spill over the region.
KENYON: So far, U.S. officials insist that America's differences with Iran can be resolved through diplomacy. But Sunni Arab states in the Middle East, having watched the Bush administration use military force that had the effect of neutralizing two of Iran's neighbors - Afghanistan and Iraq - are now worried that Washington may turn to the military option to deal with the newly empowered Iran as well.
In the meantime, Shiites living under Sunni governments here have their own worries. They wonder if the modest political and economic gains they've made in recent years will be wiped out as Sunni leaders move to quell all signs of descent amid rising fears of sectarian violence.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Kuwait.