SHANNON, Ireland – Iraq's neighbors in the Middle East have "everything at stake" if Iraq fails, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said ahead of two international meetings that have become command performances for skeptical Arab states.
Festering tensions between Iraq and its neighbors are complicating U.S. efforts to round up key aid — including debt relief — before the two-day summit later this week in Egypt.
"The region has everything at stake here; Iraq's neighbors have everything at stake here," Rice told reporters traveling with her to a gathering that will include U.S. adversaries Iran and Syria.
She left Washington late Tuesday, stopped for refueling in Ireland and was arriving in Egypt Wednesday afternoon.
Back-to-back meetings Thursday and Friday are devoted to increasing world economic and diplomatic support for Iraq and reducing the tide of sectarian violence and terrorism there. Host Egypt wants the international summit to call for a three-month cease-fire between Iraqi forces and insurgents, according to a draft resolution. Iraq strongly objected to the idea on Monday.
Although the Bush administration predicted the conference will yield billions in aid pledges and agreements to forgive Iraq's substantial overseas debt, Arab countries planned to demand that Iraq do more to reach out to its own disgruntled Sunni Arabs in return.
Arab states have been reluctant to contribute substantial financial or diplomatic help to Iraq, largely because Sunni-led states dislike or distrust the U.S.-backed, Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Many Arab diplomats also say they doubt Iraq can stave off a civil war they want no part of.
The challenge for Iraq's Western backers is to convince neighboring states that they have more to lose from a failed Iraq than they risk by engaging now.
"Iraq is at the center of either a stable Middle East or an unstable Middle East, and we should therefore all align our policies," to strengthen Iraq and its young democratic government, Rice said.
The meeting agenda has been overshadowed by the possibility that Rice may use the sessions to invite the most substantive high-level U.S. contact with Iran and Syria.
Rice said she does not rule out such talks despite long resistance in the Bush administration to that kind of engagement, but that she is not seeking them. Although she said the topic at hand is Iraq, Rice suggested she would not limit any discussions she may have.
"If we encounter each other and wander into other subjects I'm prepared to at least address them in terms of American policy," Rice said of potential discussions with Iran's foreign minister.
The meetings in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik are expected to bring together officials from the United States, Iran, Russia, China, Europe and Arab nations.
The U.S. and Iraq are hoping the conference will produce a strong show of international support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, particularly a commitment to reduce Iraq's huge debts.
Rice gave one of the administration's stronger recent endorsements of the al-Maliki government, saying the coalition had made real gains after a period of uncertainty.
The Bush administration's top diplomat will be trying to draw additional world support for the Iraq effort just as frustration with the 5-year-old war at home provoked a historic White House showdown with Congress.
In only the second veto of his six-year presidency, President Bush rejected legislation pushed by Democratic leaders that would require the first U.S. combat troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by Oct. 1 with a goal of a complete pullout six months later.
The unpopular war has cost more than $421 billion since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. More than 3,351 U.S. troops have died in Iraq while Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated at more than 63,000.