Iraqi Prime Minister Runs Into Arab Worries on First Major Trip

On his first major trip in office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki received a red-carpet welcome from his Arab Gulf neighbors, hugged and dined by a king, emirs and sheiks. But behind the scenes, the leaders made clear they will help his new government only if he takes additional steps to reach out to Iraqi Sunnis.

The talks this week with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates "were courteous but not warm," said one delegate in al-Maliki's entourage.

In particular, some Arab leaders urged al-Maliki to free all Sunni Arabs who are in detention in Iraq regardless of their links to the Sunni-led insurgency, said the delegate, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

CountryWatch: Iraq

"At some points [in the talks], they made it clear that Arab neighbors will not help his government until Sunnis have a larger say in running Iraq's affairs," said the delegate.

The tension — part of widespread Sunni-Shiite distrust across the Middle East — is troubling because the United States has hoped for regional support for Iraq from powerful and affluent countries like Saudi Arabia, both in terms of providing aid and also political support.

The United States had pushed hard for the trip with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, first visiting Saudi Arabia and urging its leaders to invite al-Maliki there.

Back in Baghdad on Thursday, al-Maliki would say only that the talks involved political, trade and security issues. "There were good ideas based on real cooperation to help Iraq in confronting the challenge of terrorism," he said.

The Gulf nations are dominated by Sunni governments, leery of Shiite and Kurdish dominance of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

For his part, al-Maliki asked Arab countries to stop any support for the insurgency, and instead back his national reconciliation plan designed to reach out to Sunni Arabs in Iraq. The plan offers amnesty to those who were not involved in terrorism, war crimes or crimes against humanity and who agree to renounce violence — but is not the widespread amnesty the Arab leaders sought.

Al-Maliki also had tough words on the trip, accusing some of Iraq's neighbors of allowing bogus companies to operate as a way to send money to the insurgents.

And he warned that losing the fight against terrorism would mean the end of Iraq, suggesting that Arab support to the insurgents could lead to the country's disintegration.

Sunni Arabs currently serve as speaker of parliament and hold a vice presidency and key posts, including the defense and justice ministries. But there are still widespread points of tension, especially the issue of who should be given amnesty.

Some Arab leaders who al-Maliki met also expressed dismay at Iraq's announcement that it wants neighboring governments to extradite former officials in Saddam's regime living in their countries. Those include Saddam's wife, living in the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, and his oldest daughter, who lives in Jordan.

Al-Maliki postponed the Jordan leg of the trip although Jordanian officials denied that was because of any tension over Saddam's daughter.

As al-Maliki traveled to the Gulf, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, traveled to Turkey — where he also complained that Arabs are doing little to restore Iraq's stability.

"Even with a democratically elected government, we haven't seen tangible support so far. That is what we really need," said Zebari in a telephone interview from Istanbul.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd, meanwhile urged Arabs to forgive billion of dollars worth of debts with Iraq.

"These debts were incurred on Iraq by Saddam and when Saddam is gone we expect them to be canceled," he said Wednesday.

Only a handful of Arab leaders sent their congratulations to al-Maliki and Talabani when they formed the new government in May, an omission widely seen by Iraqis as a diplomatic gaffe if not an insult.

In April, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also angered Iraqi leaders by saying Shiites there and across the Middle East are more loyal to Iran than to their own countries.

And last year, Jordan's King Abdullah II angered many when he warned that Iran was seeking to create "a Shiite crescent" that would disrupt the region's balance of power. Saudi Foreign Minister Saudi al-Faisal made similar warnings.

Meanwhile, Arab hopes of sponsoring an Iraqi national reconciliation conference next month in Baghdad also remain stalled over whether to invite those with ties to insurgents or Saddam.

Ahmed Ben Heli, the Arab League's assistant secretary-general, based in Cairo, said the group will invite insurgent representatives despite Iraqi government opposition.