Not happy, Mr President
Confidence is low among Iraqis despite the US boost,
reports Middle East correspondent Martin Chulov from Amman
FOR the fourth time in little more than a year, Condoleezza Rice will be back in the Middle East this weekend attempting to do a deal.
This time she is without a slate of intentions. The lessons of her recent visits have taught the US Secretary of State to be careful what she wishes for - and even more wary of what she trumpets. Rice's whistle-stop will take her to Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank, but not to the war-torn crisis point that will, one way or another, define her time in office - Iraq.
Rice flew in with no promises days after one of the biggest calls of George W. Bush's administration. The "surge" of 20,000-plus troops to Baghdad and its surrounds aimed at sorting out the dire sectarian mess that is rapidly imperiling the region and reshaping USpolitics.
The Bush play has not been well received in the Sunni Arab world, much of which appears to seriously doubt whether the US can usher in a solution to any of the three main conflicts that fester across the region. Rivalry between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq underscores theviolence.
Iraq's bloody woes could easily be followed by war in the Palestinian territories and perhaps Lebanon, which is in the midst of a precarious political shake-out from the war last July between Hezbollah and Israel.
For exiled Iraqis in neighbouring Jordan, the Bush admissions of mistakes made in Iraq have been greeted with deep scepticism and a fear that his mea culpa about not escalating sooner will not prevent more mistakes.
"Bush listens but implements things in his own way," says Hassan al-Bazzaz, secretary-general of a fledging Iraqi advocacy group, the Patriotic and National Forces Movement. "The Americans have made mistakes more than once. They create problems and they do not know how to solve them. They create political problems in their labs and turn them into monsters that cannot be controlled. All their attempts ended in failure."
Mohamad Dabdab, a former Baathist who fled the Iraqi capital shortly after it fell in mid-2003, says the US cannot control security in his homeland.
"More than one secretary in the US administration acknowledged mistakes, like Rice and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"Not a single day passes without the Iraqi news being in the lead. The US is not capable of dealing with the world's problems. The American politicians need to understand the Arab mentality and the Iraqis. If they think that a strategy is announcing their mistakes, they are wrong.
"The Americans have failed in their strategic approach, to instil democracy and confront terrorists. There is no democracy in Iraq, while terrorism has intensified."
For the past five years, the cornerstones of Bush's Middle East policy have been to curb terrorism in an area he regards as ground zero of the war on Islamist terrorists, and instil democracy where strongmen have ruled amid totalitarian states for hundreds of years. Much of the Arab world appears to have flunked him on the first mission statement and regard the second as, at best, a work in progress.
The brutal flare-up between Hezbollah and Israel, the escalating intra-Palestinian violence in Gaza and the West Bank, and the bloody turmoil in Iraq are testament to the intrinsic problems with both objectives. They surfaced quickly after the Iraqi invasion in early 2003 and have gathered steam ever since - stirred along by two would-be regional powerbrokers, Iran and Syria, that each have an interest in the world's most powerful democracy being kept in a quagmire.
The occupation of Iraq has unleashed a staunch sectarianism across the region that seriously threatens to derail the US troop surge, which many observers see as a last ditch attempt to regain control of Iraq. For the first time since the borders of the Arabian nation-states were drawn after the two world wars of last century, Shia Muslims are on the crux of a wave influence. Backed heavily by Shia Iran, which sees the turmoil as a chance to reassert the influence of the old Persian empire, the Shi'ites of Iraq are now in pole position, should the fragile nation succumb to a sectarian carve-up.
A break-up would bolster Iran, which has been partially emboldened by Hezbollah taking the fight to Israel in July and August and the threat of a nuclear capability it holds over the US and the region.
"For Arabs, there is a sectarian and ethnic struggle, almost a civil war," says Bazzaz. "But the war is not a civil war. And it would not necessarily lead to disintegration and divisions. We believe that there are external forces influenced by Persians. But the vast majority want unity in Iraq.
"We do not know where we are heading to. There are powers that are steering in a way that suits their interests. That's why, we as Iraqis, are in a vehicle and we do not know who's navigating us, or driving us. The strategy refers to the police and armed forces as if they are neutral parties, while the problem lies in these people.
"We want the Americans to depart, and leave Iraq for its people. We do not wish to be a second Lebanon, or another Sudan for that matter. We Iraqis will stand together when this government leaves."
Some support for the Bush plan comes from sources the US would find as encouraging: hardline Sunni elements that were the first to stir the sectarian uprising.
Sunni sheik and tribal leader Bazee al-Qaoud says he's "optimistic about the strategy, because in a way it considers the Sunni interests. Maybe there will be a change.
"Two-and-a-half months ago, 625 Sunni personalities met Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and discussed a code of honour that we have signed. The meeting was also attended by factions representing the Iraqi people including minority Turkmen sheiks. We have asked for dissolving the sectarian militias and reinstatement of the Iraqi army disbanded after Saddam Hussein's fall, and to acknowledge the rights of the resistance, repeat the elections, abolish the constitution, and withdraw foreign troops."
If the Sunnis, who lost a lot of power and influence to the Kurds in the north and Shi'ites in the south when Saddam was toppled, are seen to be appeased, a lot of antagonism could be removed from the insurgent battlefield.
"Iraq should not be divided, all the people are entitled to its goods," says al-Qaoud. "The Iraqis are responsible for their land. We have also agreed that autonomy remains in the north."
Rice's weekend mission is at this stage confined to a high-stakes sales pitch. The bid to sort out Iraq will anchor the US's Middle Eastern policy for at least the first half of the year. The recent history of the region is littered with broken deals and ineffective outcomes, many of which she has been a party to. In November 2005, Rice brokered a lauded deal to reopen Gaza's border crossing points and get cargo trucks rolling in and out of the strip. The deal never took hold and 15 months later, Gaza, the West Bank and the Palestinian territories are further away from an entry point to the so-called road map for peace than ever before.
Rice was also central to the deal to bring an end to the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, a deal that has left Israel feeling short-changed. The key elements involved the Shia militia retreating to north of the Litani River, surrendering its weapons and handing over southern Lebanon to the Lebanese Army. Only the latter of the three objectives have been achieved, and Israel has complained vigorously that the thousands of UN peace keepers have not kicked Hezbollah out, or done anything to prevent it from re-arming.
More is at stake for the US in the Middle East over the next six months than at any time since Bush was elected. Enemies and sceptics alike are poised to seize the vacuum that further failure would create. That would unambiguously mean civil war - and probably a broader regional conflict.
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