Secretary Rice says Arabs should boost support for Iraq

Iraq's Arab neighbors have few remaining excuses for withholding diplomatic and economic support for the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad, now that daily life in Iraq is less deadly and the government has demonstrated resolve against militias and outliers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday.

"At some point the Arab states need to take yes for an answer," Rice said en route to diplomatic meetings on Iraq's future. The role of Iran in Iraq and the wider Mideast is a subtext for the sessions in Bahrain and Kuwait, but Rice has ruled out holding a formal meeting with her Iranian counterpart. ( AP )

The United States has tried for years to rally Arab support for a post-Saddam Iraq, both for the boost that regional acceptance would give the fledgling democracy and as a bulwark against spreading Iranian influence in Iraq and elsewhere.

Arab diplomats say they want to foster long-term stability in Iraq five years after a U.S.-led invasion many of them opposed, but see little sign that the Shiite-led Iraq government will fully include Sunni Muslims in political power and oil wealth. Arab states also privately note that with less than 10 months left in office, the Bush administration has declining leverage both over Arab states and the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Meanwhile, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gave a "final warning" to the al-Maliki government Saturday to halt a U.S.-Iraqi crackdown against his followers or he would declare "open war until liberation."

A full-blown uprising by al-Sadr, who led two rebellions against U.S.-led forces in 2004, could lead to a dramatic increase in violence in Iraq at a time when the Sunni extremist group al-Qaida in Iraq appears poised for new attacks after suffering severe blows last year.

Al-Sadr's warning appeared on his Web site as Iraq's Shiite-dominated government claimed success in a new push against Shiite militants in the southern city of Basra. Fighting claimed 14 more lives in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Fighting in Sadr City and the crackdown in Basra are part of a government campaign against followers of al-Sadr and Iranian-backed Shiite splinter groups that the U.S. has identified as the gravest threat to a democratic Iraq.

Al-Maliki has ordered al-Sadr to disband the Mahdi Army, Iraq's biggest Shiite militia, or face a ban from politics.

Rice chided Arab states for foot-dragging on old pledges to forgive Iraqi debts, establish embassies or take other symbolic steps to embrace Iraq's Shiite-led government.

Rice said al-Maliki has answered Sunni critics who questioned his willingness to take on Shiite militias. The crackdown was not a military success, but Rice said it has rallied what she calls centrists from across Iraq's political groups.

The anti-militia operation in Basra may have briefly increased violence in Iraq, but it comes on top of months of security gains since President Bush ordered tens of thousands of additional troops into the country last year, Rice said.

"There has been progress on the ground both in terms of the security situation and in terms of Iraqi political reconciliation," and Arab states are "going to have to take note of that," Rice said, sounding more upbeat about the durability of those gains than did the top U.S. ground commander, Gen. David Petraeus, in congressional testimony this month.

"The neighbors kept making a case that the security situation has to get better. It has," Rice said. "They kept making a case that political reconciliation needed to make strides forward. It is making strides forward."

Saudi Arabia promised to begin establishing an embassy in Iraq last summer, but after sending a scouting party the idea has apparently faded. Bahrain, with a majority Shiite population, has made a similar pledge. Egypt, among other U.S. allies, has said the situation is still too dangerous. Egypt sent an ambassador to Baghdad shortly after the independent government was formed, but he was assassinated.

Rice will meet Persian Gulf diplomats in Bahrain, and a wider group of Arab states and others in Kuwait. The Kuwait meeting is the third such regional gathering centered on ways that neighbor states can help Iraq secure its borders, improve internal stability and deal with the tide of refugees that fled sectarian violence and economic decline in Iraq.

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