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Bush tries to strengthen `Sunni bulwark' to contain Iran

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration is trying to bring Persian Gulf monarchies and other Sunni Muslim Arab autocrats into a new security alliance to contain Shiite Muslim Iran's growing influence and stem any spillover of violence from Iraq, according to senior U.S. officials, diplomats and private analysts.

But the effort's success could hinge in part on whether President Bush heeds growing calls in the region and at home to reactivate long-dormant American mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq, due to deliver its report in early December, is expected to recommend reviving American peacemaking efforts as part of a regional approach to resolving the violence in Iraq.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to meet Thursday in Jordan with representatives of eight countries—Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—who are alarmed by Iraq's civil war and Iran's resurgence. She also will travel to the West Bank to meet Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Rice's diplomacy comes a week after Vice President Dick Cheney visited Saudi Arabia for consultations.

The evolving U.S. strategy is sometimes called the "Sunni bulwark" because it envisions banding with Sunni nations to counter Iran's ambitions. Iran, which is thought to be seeking nuclear weapons, has supported Shiite militias in neighboring Iraq, is the patron of the radical militia Hezbollah in Lebanon and has supported militant Sunni Palestinian groups, including Hamas.

"Overall, if I'm looking at this from a real geopolitical sense it really is about preventing one hegemonic power from being able to dominate the region," said a senior U.S. official, referring to Iran. He requested anonymity to speak frankly.

It isn't clear, however, whether Sunni Arab leaders are prepared to join the Bush administration in confronting Iran.

Policymakers are aware that this new cooperation could be used to contain fallout from the violence in Iraq as well, the senior official said. The United States has been encouraging Arab countries to cancel Iraqi debt and bolster diplomatic relations.

If Iraq's Iranian-backed Shiite militias continue to kill Iraqi Sunnis and drive them from their homes, however, some neighboring Sunnis could be drawn into the fight on the side of Iraq's Sunni insurgents.

U.S. officials and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a coalition of Arab Persian Gulf states, have discussed stepped-up cooperation on maritime security, missile defense, air defense and counterterrorism. Assistant Secretary of State John Hillen has traveled to the Persian Gulf a half-dozen times.

In a clear signal to Iran, more than two dozen countries—including the United States and three Persian Gulf nations—began naval exercises in late October 20 miles outside Iran's territorial waters. Any disruption of oil supplies through the gulf would send prices skyrocketing.

Publicly, the Bush administration tiptoes around the issue of the Sunni-Shiite divide.

"You know, I'm not going to try to break it down according to religious sects. I would draw the line differently," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "This is a grouping of countries that are really interested in moderation in the region, that are interested in greater freedom, greater openness."

The United States, however, is pressing autocratic Sunni leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah to lean on Iraq's Sunnis to end their insurgency and reach a deal to coexist with the country's majority Shiites.

Stabilizing Iraq will be the primary topic when Bush meets in Jordan on Thursday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The Arab nations appear unlikely to cooperate extensively unless Bush moves to try to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however. Regard for the United States is low in Arab nations, where people view Washington as an uncritical ally of Israel.

Rice was given that message bluntly two months ago when she met in Cairo with counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt and Jordan.

"Clearly the Sunni states need some cover for their own populations," said analyst Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council. "The absence of that is giving the Iranians the opportunity to turn on the heat on Israel and bring the attention of the Arab street to the unresolved issue of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute."

The recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and retired Indiana Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, are expected to reinforce that message.

In recent days, Israel and the Palestinians announced a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Israel's willingness to withdraw from settlements in the West Bank.

Bush has been less personally involved in the Arab-Israeli dispute than any American president since Israel's creation in 1948. The United States has refused to talk to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority unless it abandons terrorism and recognizes Israel's right to exist.

"I think that people are rightly skeptical about how serious the Bush administration is about the issue," said retired U.S. diplomat Edward Abington, who previously advised the Palestinian Authority.

"A lot of people in the administration think that it's just too hard and you are not going to make any progress given the weakness of the Olmert government and the weakness of the Palestinian government and its inability to develop a unified position," he said.

Parsi said the strategy of containing Iran was doomed to fail.

"The United States tried this same strategy in the mid-1990s, and the U.S. was at the height of its power and Iran was much weaker than it is today. And it didn't work," he said. "Now the United States is in a mess. Iran has proven itself quite a power in the region, and to think that the same strategy will work now is just another one of these fantasies that this administration seems to be stuck to."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.