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    Middle East
     Apr 27, 2006
Arabs stake a claim in Iraq
By Iason Athanasiadis

BAGHDAD - The Arab League is to reopen its Baghdad office for the first time since the US-led invasion of Iraq three years ago amid fears of growing Iranian influence in Iraq and the increasing scale-back of US troops there into "enduring bases".

"They [the Arabs] are worried about the future of Iraq and that it will drift out of the Arab sphere of influence," a former high-ranking Iranian foreign-policy official told Asia Times Online in Tehran.

The 22-member Arab League, established in 1945, resembles the Organization of American States, the Council of Europe or the

African Union in that it has primarily political aims. All Arab League members are also members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. In turn, the memberships of the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab Maghreb Union organizations are subsets of the Arab League.

The newly appointed head of the Arab League's mission in Iraq is Moroccan diplomat Mokhtar Lamani. He is already in Baghdad with a brief to consult with various Iraqi factions and speed up the creation of an Iraqi government that remains unformed over four months after the December elections brought a Shi'ite coalition to power. One of his first steps was to meet with US Ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad.

The Arab League has resisted opening an office in Baghdad in a sign of its disapproval for the non-United Nations-sanctioned war. But Iraq's gradual collapse into civil strife has prompted concerned Arab leaders to re-engage with the troubled country.

Last month, top intelligence officers from several Arab countries and Turkey met secretly to coordinate their governments' strategies in case civil war erupts in Iraq, according to Arab diplomats quoted by the Associated Press, and in an attempt to block Iranian interference there, as that non-Arab country is widely perceived as a threat to the region.

Concern over Shi'ite Iran's reach in Shi'ite-majority Iraq has bubbled over into a series of anxious statements made by Sunni-dominated Arab leaders in the past week.

"The threat of breakup in Iraq is a huge problem for the countries of the region, especially if the fighting is on a sectarian basis," said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal on Tuesday as he discussed a massive air-defense deal with a British delegation that could see Saudi Arabia buy up to 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets and upgrade its existing Tornado fighters. "This type of fighting sucks in other countries."

Faisal's comments followed controversial remarks made by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiyya news channel where he accused Arab Shi'ites of holding primary allegiance to Iran rather than to their own Sunni governments. Mubarak's statements laid bare the distrust with which the region's Sunni rulers regard Arab Shi'ites and caused a storm of protest by Iraqi politicians.

"Such statements make it more difficult for any serious Arab initiative in Iraq," said Joseph Bahout, a Paris-based Lebanese political analyst. "They also highlight the dangers of any open Arab alignment in the US-Iran confrontation." This was a reference to the fragile unity of the Arab League.

Nevertheless, the Arab League's return to what was once one of the most powerful Arab states signals an escalation in the Arab-Iranian struggle over Iraq's future.

"The Arabs feel that Iraq is a slippery fish," said the Iranian official. "They want to catch this fish and bring it to the Arab family. So they don't want there to be a deal between Iran and the US on Iraq. They don't want to see Iran being the gendarme of the Gulf again."

Aware of Arab wariness of Iran, US Vice President Dick Cheney made a rare foray to the region in January, visiting US allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia to suggest an Egypt-led, Arab multinational force under Arab League auspices. Iraqi politicians have repeatedly said they might accept troops from other Muslim countries, but not from any direct neighbors.

A possible Arab multinational peacekeeping force would enter Iraq under Arab League or United Nations auspices. Sources said Egypt would provide most of the manpower and military hardware, with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states concerned about the rise in Iranian influence funding the initiative.

But Middle East-watchers warn that the entry of a pan-Arab force into Iraq could turn the country into a proxy battleground with Iran and dangerously escalate a regional confrontation that has until now been simmering on a diplomatic level.

"After the toppling of Saddam [Hussein]'s regime, Arab countries totally lost the situation ... which is why they support the tensions in Iraq today, because they don't have any more cards to play," said the former Iranian official. "Several times they've said that if Iraq is not an Arab country, then we won't support any peace and tranquility there."

Tehran has sought to allay Arab fears about its role in Iraq and about military exercises held recently in the Persian Gulf, just a few kilometers away from five key oil-producing Arab countries. Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar was reported as saying by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that his country sought "peace and friendship" for neighboring states. He offered joint military war games with any of the Persian Gulf littoral states, as well as the signing of a non-aggression pact.

The US Embassy spokeswoman in Baghdad said there was no "specific comment on this Arab League issue" but added that "the ambassador [Khalilzad] has spoken a number of times on the importance of neighboring and other Arab countries coming in to support the new, democratic Iraq".

A secular Sunni leader, Mubarak would be happy to crack down on Muslim radicals such as the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi group, just as he virtually destroyed indigenous Islamist movements in Egypt in the early 1990s.

"The Egyptian regime has been afraid of Iranian-inspired Muslim radicalism ever since the 1979 [Iranian] revolution," said Middle East specialist Juan Cole. "The opportunity to counter Iranian influence in Arab Iraq could seem attractive to the Egyptian military and also could strike them as a form of self-defense."

On the streets of Baghdad, the violence unleashed on a daily basis has reached such proportions that ordinary Iraqis are desperate for any intervention that might end the circle of violence.

For Waleed, an embassy driver from a Baghdad-based Sunni clan, Iraq's leaders have proved they are incapable of stemming the violence. "If they brought a Jew in to run this country, he would do it better than the people we have now," he said, using an expression common among Arabs when describing an untrustworthy person.

"We've tried the Iraqis and they're useless. Now let's try anyone who will govern justly."

Iason Athanasiadis is an Iran-based correspondent.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

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