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Arab leaders still cool toward new Iraqi government

KHARTOUM, Sudan—Embattled at home, Iraq's U.S.-backed government also is having trouble winning respect—much less support—from Arab neighbors, who still don't consider it legitimate or sovereign, several delegates said Tuesday at an Arab summit in the Sudanese capital.

Nearly three years since Saddam Hussein's ouster, skepticism about the new Iraqi leadership remains one of the chief reasons that no Arab nation has an ambassador in Baghdad and the Arab League has yet to open the office there that it promised long ago.

The lack of an Arab presence took on greater importance with the announcement of plans for Iranian-American talks on Iraq. Fearing that Arabs would be sidelined even more in a war that's sending shockwaves through the region, delegates at the summit drew up resolutions that stressed the protection of "Arab interests" in Iraq and renewed promises to send Middle Eastern envoys.

"Iraq used to be a strong Arab country," said Nancy Bakeer, the assistant secretary-general of the Arab League, adding that many Arabs had no idea of the former regime's atrocities until Saddam fell. "Now we are discovering different faces of Iraq, and we never knew it was such a mosaic. ... But, of course, for any change there is great resistance."

Iraq's new mainly Shiite Muslim and Kurdish leaders are closer to Shiite, Persian Iran than they are to the rest of the Middle East's leadership, which is a fairly homogenous collection of monarchs and authoritarians who, like Saddam, are Sunni Muslim Arabs.

Many of those rulers are fearful of Iraq's ties to Iran, bitter over the presence of thousands of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil, dubious about the fairness of the three post-Saddam elections and shocked at the government's failure to stem ethnic bloodletting.

At the Arab summit this week, delegates graciously received the Iraqi party, trading customary kisses on the cheek and whispering prayers for an end to the violence. But when approached by reporters asking whether they supported the Shiite- and Kurdish-led government in Baghdad, delegates chose their words carefully and quickly excused themselves.

"Iraq is simply another Arab country that was occupied, and at some point the Shiites and Kurds helped with that," said a senior Arab diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "But we're trying to deal with the current Iraqi government."

Arab leaders also feel that the Iraqi government doesn't recognize a legitimate anti-occupation resistance and instead lumps Sunni Arab nationalist fighters who attack solely military targets together with terrorists who kill civilians.

Even among the Arab world's top diplomats, the rancor typically concealed behind smiles and handshakes briefly bubbled to the surface. At a preliminary session on the humanitarian crisis in the southern Sudanese region of Darfur, a Syrian delegate rose to address a room full of Arab foreign ministers.

"We are losing Palestine, we are losing Iraq, we can't lose Darfur," the Syrian was quoted as saying by other delegates present. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, refused to let the comment pass, and made a terse retort before the stunned audience.

"Why do they think they've lost Iraq? Iraq is now run by its people," said Iraqi Trade Minister Abdel Basit Kareem Mawlood, who was in Khartoum for the summit. "Iraq is run by the people who fought and struggled against Saddam for 30 years."

Even Mukhtar Lamani, a veteran Moroccan diplomat tapped to head the new Arab League office in Baghdad, said he'd have had to think twice before taking such a post in the past couple of years because of his views on the post-Saddam political process. Now, he said, security concerns outweigh his reticence about aiding a government that's still portrayed as American lackeys in many state-run newspapers through the Middle East.

In an apparent bid to keep Arab-Iraqi relations frozen, last year Sunni insurgents executed Egypt's top envoy to Baghdad, killed two Algerian diplomats and wounded a Bahraini envoy. Iraqi officials privately said the trouble they were taking to find a secure, suitable villa for the Arab League mission far surpassed any efforts on behalf of other diplomats.

Lamani said it would take just one Arab ambassador posted to Baghdad for others to follow. With the American-Iranian talks coming up, he said, Arabs "have the feeling they're not there, that they're left out."

So when will the Arab League's Baghdad office open?

"We don't have a date yet," he said.

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(El Naggar is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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