Rice says Arabs must shield Iraq from Iran's sway
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday she would press Iraq's Arab neighbors hard next week to do more to support Baghdad's government and shield it from Iran's "nefarious influences."
Rice, set to attend a conference of Iraq's neighbors in Kuwait on Tuesday, said her message would be for Arab states to fulfill their promises to increase diplomatic, economic, social and cultural ties with Baghdad's government.
"What Iraq now needs most and what I will push for in Kuwait is greater support from its neighbors," Rice said. "That includes establishing embassies in Baghdad and exchanging ambassadors."
Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, have so far resisted U.S. pressure to open embassies in Baghdad, which Washington argues would bolster the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and help counter the influence of neighboring Shi'ite Iran.
Rice said Iraq should be "fully reincorporated" into the Arab world by its neighbors, who have been suspicious of Maliki's government and its ties with Iran.
Iraq is an Arab nation while Iran's roots are Persian. Both countries, however, have majority Shi'ite populations.
"What they need to do is confirm and work for Iraq's Arab identity," she said. "That in and of itself will begin to shield (Iraq) from influences of Iran that are nefarious influences," Rice said at a news conference.
She also said Iraq's Arab neighbors could help encourage the Sunni minority to participate more fully in the political process in Iraq and to offer Baghdad much-needed debt relief, which has been slow in coming.
Iraq expert and ex-CIA analyst Bruce Riedel said Rice faced an upward battle in Kuwait to get Sunni states to do more.
"She will have a very difficult time with the Gulf states in convincing them that the Maliki government is anything other than the cat's paw of the Iranians," said Riedel, now with the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
En route to Kuwait, Rice will stop off in Bahrain for meetings with ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Egypt and Jordan to press her case for greater support for Baghdad. The GCC comprises Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
Rice said Iran must stop its "malign actions" in Iraq, where Washington says Tehran has stoked violence and was behind the latest fighting in the southern city of Basra.
Iran's mission to the United Nations on Thursday rejected as baseless U.S. charges that Tehran was stirring up violence in Iraq and said there had never been any evidence to corroborate such claims.
"To the contrary. the realities on the ground along with clear statements by Iraqi officials attest to the invalidity of such claims," said the statement e-mailed to Reuters.
At previous neighbors' meetings, Rice exchanged pleasantries but had no substantive talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who is expected at the Kuwait meeting.
Rice said she did not intend in Kuwait to have talks with Mottaki to discuss security issues in Iraq.
The United States has no diplomatic ties with Iran. But the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has held several rounds of talks with his Iranian counterpart to discuss the security situation.
The United States is also at loggerheads with Iran because of its nuclear program and has said it will only talk to Tehran about that issue if Iran gives up sensitive nuclear work that Washington believes is aimed at building a nuclear bomb. Iran argues its nuclear program is for peaceful power purposes.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Editing by Xavier Briand)