Citing an overall improvement in the level of violence in Iraq, the United States was encouraging Iraq's Arab neighbors to back statements of support for Baghdad with money and political capital.

Iraq sent its foreign minister to a gathering of Persian Gulf states here Monday, where Iraq and its U.S. backers planned to make a case for further debt relief and symbolic steps, such as visits to Baghdad by Arab diplomats. No Arab state has a permanent embassy there.

A larger gathering of Arab states and Iraq's international backers is planned for Tuesday in Kuwait. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, flying to Kuwait on Monday, told The Associated Press that he would speak frankly to Arab diplomats.

"There are countries that support the political process and are opening embassies here," he said, a reference to unfulfilled pledges from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. "We need the others to open embassies here, too. There are some nations that don't recognize our political process and ... are inciting strife," he continued. "I am bewildered by the position of these nations."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice challenged Arab states to answer security improvements and political advances in Iraq, saying there are few excuses left for delay. She began a three-day Mideast trip with a visit to Baghdad on Sunday, where she said she was encouraged despite a recent uptick in violence.

She signed an agreement Monday with the United Arab Emirates for cooperation as the oil-rich Gulf federation works to develop civilian nuclear power, and was holding private talks with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister.

Shiite Iran is the subtext of two days of Iraq-themed meetings Rice is attending. She has been making the case that majority-Shiite Iraq is an Arab state, with an Arab identity that deserves solidarity from its majority-Sunni neighbors.

The Bush administration is arguing that although Iran has pull inside Iraq, Sunni states nervous about Iran's spreading influence in the Mideast should not use that as an excuse to give Iraq the cold shoulder.

Speaking to reporters Sunday in Baghdad, Rice said she would make the case that much has changed inside Iraq in the last year, owing partly to the additional presence of American troops and also to what she says is growing political cohesion among Iraq's sectarian and ethnic factions.

"Adjustments are going to have to be made," in the way Arab states regard Iraq, she said.

The United States has tried for years to rally Arab support for a post-Saddam Iraq, both for the boost that regional acceptance would give the fledgling democracy and as a bulwark against spreading Iranian influence in Iraq and elsewhere.

Arab diplomats say they want to foster long-term stability in Iraq five years after a U.S.-led invasion and occupation many of them opposed, but see little sign that the Shiite-led Iraq government will fully include Sunni Muslims in political power and oil wealth. Arab states also privately note that with less than 10 months left in office, the Bush administration has declining leverage both over Arab states and al-Maliki's Baghdad government.

En route to the region, Rice chided Arab states for foot-dragging on old pledges to forgive Iraqi debts, establish embassies or take other symbolic steps to embrace Iraq's Shiite-led government.

Rice said al-Maliki has answered Sunni critics who questioned his willingness to take on Shiite militias. The crackdown was not a military success, but Rice said it has rallied what she calls centrists from across Iraq's political groups.