Gates Looks to Boost Mideast Support for Iraq

Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits the Middle East to rally support for Iraq's fragile government among U.S. allies in the region.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Baghdad today. It's part of a week-long trip he's making to the region. Gates is attempting to bridge the sectarian divide and enlist more support from the Sunni Arab states of Jordan and Egypt for Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. NPR's Tom Bowman has more.

TOM BOWMAN: Gates wants the Sunni Arab leaders to use any influence they have to convince Iraq's Sunni insurgents to support the Maliki government, and he wants Maliki to do a better job at reaching out to the Sunni minority in Iraq. During his stop in Jordan, Gates acknowledged that Sunni Arab leaders do not see Maliki as a truly national leader.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): I think that there is not yet confidence in the region that Iraq's government represents all Iraqis. My own view is that they're working hard in that direction.

BOWMAN: Sunni Arab leaders are wary of Maliki and his ties to the Shiite government of Iran. The prime minister made a well-publicized trip to Tehran in September. It was only several weeks ago that Maliki made his first trip to Iraq's Anbar province, the Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad.

Then there are Maliki's ties to the Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr, a strong political ally who heads Iraq's largest militia, the Mehdi Army, blamed for many attacks on Sunnis.

Peter Rodman just stepped down as assistant defense secretary. He says Maliki deserves the support of regional Sunni leaders.

Mr. PETER RODMAN (Former Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Defense): Prime Minister Maliki has demonstrated that he is distancing himself from Sadr and the Sadrists. He has distanced himself from the Iranians. The Iranians are mad at him precisely because Maliki has shown that he's an Iraqi.

BOWMAN: Sadr this week pulled his allies from Maliki's cabinet. Hundreds of his Mehdi Army troops have been arrested in the ongoing Baghdad security crackdown. And Rodman says many Shiites in Iraq don't necessarily want to be under the sway of Iran.

Mr. RODMAN: The Shia of Iraq will tell you they mistrust Iran, they don't want to be an Iranian puppet.

BOWMAN: But many Sunni leaders in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq want more than just words from Maliki or a quick visit. They complain that the Maliki government is not supporting them. Anbar province is not getting the expected reconstruction money from Baghdad. Provincial elections would give Sunnis a greater say in local governance. The elections were promised for this spring; now, they have been pushed back to later this year at the earliest. More aid money, provincial elections - these are part of a wider reconciliation effort that Maliki has promised the Bush administration.

Again, Peter Rodman, the former defense official:

Mr. RODMAN: Oh, there's a long list of things that we want the prime minister to do, particularly reconciliation.

BOWMAN: Gates said today in Baghdad he wants faster progress on these efforts. They include an oil law that would distribute funds evenly. That law has passed the cabinet but lies dormant. Reversal of widespread de-Baathification that would provide more government jobs to Sunnis - that effort, too, has foundered.

Ms. MICHELLE FLOURENOY (Defense Analyst, Center for New American Security; Former Pentagon Official): Maliki really has a leadership role to play. No one else can do it for him.

BOWMAN: Michelle Flourenoy(ph) was a Pentagon official in the Clinton administration. She's now a defense analyst with the Center for New American Security.

Ms. FLOURENOY: If that accommodation isn't reached and soon, I think you're going to have centrifugal forces in Iraq that really pull it into a sort of soft partition.

BOWMAN: Soft partition means the country will dissolve into separate enclaves. Flourenoy says that could lead to a greater regional instability, but for the short term, it may be the only option left. Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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