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Arab leaders express alarm that Iraq could fall into all-out civil war

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait—Arab leaders expressed growing alarm Tuesday that Iraq could fall into all-out civil war, but they offered mostly rhetorical backing for President Bush's plan to try to stabilize the country with more troops and economic aid.

While representatives of eight Arab nations said they welcomed Bush's initiative, their focus in talks here with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was on the rapidly worsening sectarian strife in Iraq, which they fear could also engulf them.

"Nine foreign ministers are meeting in Kuwait precisely to prevent Iraq from sliding into a civil war. And that speaks volumes," said Kuwait's foreign minister, Sheik Mohammed al-Sabah.

In a written statement, the group said it supported Bush's speech last week on Iraq and the U.S. commitment to defend the security of the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

The United States also has been urging Arab nations to join it in taking a more robust stance to counter Iran, which has sought to spread its influence into Iraq and which Washington and others accuse of seeking a nuclear weapon.

But the communique issued after Rice met with her counterparts in a vast royal conference center here didn't mention Iran and instead called vaguely for countries to respect "the principle of noninterference" in other countries' affairs. A senior Rice aide said that language was aimed at Tehran.

The document didn't mention Iran's nuclear program at all. The reason wasn't immediately clear, but many Arab nations argue that weapons proliferation can't be discussed without including Israel's nuclear arsenal.

Nations on the Arab side of the Gulf have looked with growing dread on the carnage in Iraq and the muscular way in which the country's majority Shiite Muslims are using their newfound political power. The nations, dominated by Sunni Muslims, also are unsettled at the resurgence of Iran, which is mostly Persian, not Arab, and largely Shiite.

"The more Iraq drags on, then at some point it will affect us all," said Shafeeq Ghabra, a Kuwaiti political science professor and president of Jasoor Arabiya, a consulting firm. "You can't have all these situations of war and conflict around you and not be affected."

If Iraq fails as a nation and the United States "abdicates" its responsibilities in the Gulf, there could be a "domino effect" on nearby nations, Ghabra said. "I think the Arab world is skeptical" of Bush's new plan for Iraq, he said, adding that he thought it was "worth a try."

Rice's meeting with the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Egypt and Jordan, came on a day when more than 100 people were reported killed in Baghdad.

None of the Arab nations publicly announced any new steps to help bolster the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Rice began her day in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she briefed King Abdullah on U.S. policy in Iraq and Iran.

Saudi Arabia, Washington's most important Gulf ally, gave Bush's new Iraq plan a skeptical reception, welcoming its goals but questioning whether al-Maliki and his government will take the needed steps to salvage the situation.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, called Iraq a "morass" and expressed doubt about al-Maliki's capabilities.

"I think that the duties he has are very heavy," he said at a press conference with Rice.

Al-Faisal seemed to speak for many Arabs when he spoke of Iraq's ancient civilization and central place in Islamic history. "I cannot for the life of me conceive that a country like that would commit suicide," he said.

Rice later acknowledged the doubt among Iraq's neighbors about whether al-Maliki can move beyond his narrow Shiite political base.

"I do think that there is skepticism about whether or not the Iraqi government is going to do the things it's said it's going to do," she told reporters.

On Iran, Bush announced last week that the United States will crack down on Iranian networks in Iraq. He also ordered an aircraft carrier strike force and Patriot anti-missile batteries to the Persian Gulf to show U.S. resolve.

There are signs that Bush's tough talk and the U.S. military buildup are making Iran nervous.

Senior Iranian envoy Ali Larijani met the Saudi monarch in Riyadh shortly before Rice arrived.

Iran denied reports that Larijani had asked the Saudis to serve as a Saudi-U.S. mediator. Rice and Faisal both told reporters such mediation isn't needed.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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