ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

On the same night the election results came out, several key Iraqi leaders flew to Tehran. That opened up a flurry of concern that Iran was having a say in the formation of Baghdad's government.

Well, now it's Saudi Arabia: Every day this week, at least one key leader, starting with Iraq's president, made a trip to Riyadh to meet with the king. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Baghdad.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Iraqi politicians insist they are forming a coalition government through a truly Iraqi process of consultation. It may seem strange then that the most substantive meetings should happen in neighboring countries.

When Iraqi politicians went to Tehran, Sunni leaders and the U.S. Embassy cried foul. This week, when Iraqi leaders went to Saudi Arabia, it was the other side's turn to complain.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Speaking foreign language).

LAWRENCE: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, called a news conference to denounce those outside powers trying to influence the new government. Iraq's future must be in Iraqi hands, he said, making clear references to Saudi Arabia.

Prime Minister AL-MALIKI: (Through translator) Some still insist on interfering with Iraqi issues. They started by feeding those who violated our Iraqi ways with killing and terrorism. They hosted evil preachers and used them and accepted their help. Now they finish by interfering with our elections and government formation.

LAWRENCE: The meetings in Saudi Arabia might have seemed a simple tit for tat: Iran meeting with Shiite leaders and then Sunnis going to Riyadh. But the Saudis also invited Shiite and Kurdish leaders, with one conspicuous omission.

Mr. NAJMALDIN KARIM (Member-elect, Parliament, Iraq): Why Maliki was not invited to any of these meetings...

LAWRENCE: Najmaldin Karim is a Kurdish member of the incoming parliament. He points out that the snub of Prime Minister Maliki is discordant with the overall message that Iraqi leaders brought back from Riyadh.

Mr. KARIM: Saudi Arabia extended invitation to the leaders of Iraq to indicate to them that they do not have preference who will become prime minister.

LAWRENCE: But both sets of meetings carry veiled messages as well, says Karim. Iran has pull with Shiite politicians and has been accused of arming Shiite militias in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries financially support Sunni politicians. But along with Syria, they allegedly facilitated the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

At the moment, both violent trends are in abeyance. The region is slowly learning the same lesson that Iraq needs to learn, says Najmaldin Karim.

Mr. KARIM: The Sunni minority has not come to terms, they no longer will be able to rule Iraq as they have been in the past 85, 90 years. And also the Shias will rule Iraq as a majority, but we also have to include others within our government: the Sunnis, the Kurds, and everybody has to be partners.

LAWRENCE: Both Tehran and Riyadh are publicly saying they agree: They just want a stable Iraq. Iraqis on the whole don't believe a word from either side. Ameer al-Deen, a clothing salesman in downtown Baghdad, gave a typical response.

Mr. AMEER AL-DEEN (Clothing Salesman): (Speaking foreign language).

LAWRENCE: Don't tell me that the Saudis or Iranians will ever look out for our best interests, say al-Deen. He adds: If anyone really wants to solve Iraq's problems, they'd better do it here in Iraq.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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