Rice hopes to enlist neighbors to stop Iraq from fracturing

WASHINGTON—With sectarian violence in Iraq raging unabated despite the U.S. troop surge, and with a political donnybrook at home over funding the war, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to the Middle East Tuesday to enlist the help of Iraq's neighbors in preventing the country from fracturing.

Senior envoys from Iran and Syria, long-time adversaries that the Bush administration until now has held at arms' length, are among those attending Rice's two-and-a-half days of meetings in the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm el Sheik.

Rice urged Iran to take part, underscoring how urgently the White House is seeking help from other Middle East nations to stabilize Iraq.

But the diplomatic parley may yield few concrete accomplishments, according to outside analysts and even some Bush administration officials.

A sudden breakthrough with Iran, which the United States accuses of supplying weaponry to Iraqi militias, seems unlikely, given the depth of distrust between the two nations. U.S. and Iranian officials indicated that Rice and her Iranian counterpart, Manoucher Mottaki, may not even hold one-on-one talks.

And despite the danger at their doorstep, Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia remain reluctant to play a more forceful role in ending Iraq's civil war.

"They don't want to be responsible for rescuing Iraq. And they don't want to be responsible for its failure, either," said former CIA analyst Judith Yaphe, now at the National Defense University.

In a blow to Rice's diplomatic strategy, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia refused to receive Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before the meetings in Egypt. Saudi Arabia sees itself as the Arab world's leading Sunni Muslim state, and looks with a mix of dread and contempt at Shiite-led Iraq and its close ties to Iran.

Rice will tell Iraq's neighbors that helping the Baghdad government isn't a matter of bailing out the United States so much as it's about averting chaos for themselves, according to two State Department officials.

If Iraq's social fabric frays further, "it's certainly conceivable that violence could spread across Iraq's borders" and its neighbors will "bear responsibility," said a senior State Department official, previewing Rice's approach on condition of anonymity.

The neighbors, however, seem likely to blame the United States instead. Rice's hand is all the weaker after Bush's veto of the Democratic Congress's attempt to tie funding of U.S. troops in Iraq to a timetable for withdrawal.

Beyond pledges of debt relief for Iraq and general statements of support for al-Maliki's central government, it seems unlikely that the meetings will produce much.

On Thursday, Rice will join representatives from roughly 70 countries to finalize the "International Compact with Iraq," an accord that gives Iraq international economic backing and debt relief in return for undertaking economic reforms.

Al-Maliki's government has been under intense U.S. pressure for months to approve a law on the distribution of the country's oil revenues.

Rice's Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, told reporters this week that he expects the law to be finalized soon. But pressed about the likelihood, he replied: "I'm not going to give odds on anything in Iraq."

On Friday, Rice will participate in a meeting with Iraq and its neighbors focused on curbing the flow of arms and fighters across its borders to Shi'ite militias and Sunni insurgents.

If Rice holds direct talks with her counterparts from Iran or Syria, she will discuss only Iraq and not other topics, such as Iran's nuclear program, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday.

An Iranian government spokesman was quoted Tuesday as saying that Tehran has no plan to negotiate with the United States. "Naturally, until the Americans stop their arrogant, one-sided and evil approach we won't negotiate with them," spokesman Gholamhossein Elham said, according to Iran's student news agency, ISNA.

Carlos Pascual, vice president of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, and a former Bush administration official, said that Rice's diplomatic foray is unlikely to achieve much unless it is part of a vigorous combined political, economic and diplomatic approach.

"Right now . . . our diplomatic strategy and our political strategy is to tell the Iraqis to fix it," Pascual said.

The National Defense University's Yaphe said Bush's plans for Iraq, from the ongoing surge of U.S. troops to new reconstruction efforts, are "three years too late."


(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)