Saudi King De­clines to Re­ceive Iraqi Leader

The Washington Post Sunday - - The Conflict In Iraq - By Robin Wright

In a se­ri­ous re­buff to U.S. diplo­macy, King Ab­dul­lah of Saudi Ara­bia has re­fused to re­ceive Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki on the eve of a crit­i­cal re­gional sum­mit on the fu­ture of the war-rav­aged coun­try, Iraqi and other Arab of­fi­cials said yes­ter­day.

The Saudi leader’s de­ci­sion re­flects the grow­ing ten­sions be­tween the oil-rich re­gional gi­ants, the deep­en­ing skep­ti­cism among Sunni lead­ers in the Mid­dle East about Iraq’s Shi­ite-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment, and Arab con­cern about the prospects of U.S. suc­cess in Iraq, the sources said. The Saudi snub also in­di­cates that the Ma­liki gov­ern­ment faces a creep­ing re­gional iso­la­tion un­less it takes long-de­layed ac­tions, Arab of­fi­cials warn.

For the United States, the Saudi cold shoul­der un­der­mines hopes of heal­ing re­gional ten­sions be­tween Sunni- and Shi­ite-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ments and pro­duc­ing a new spirit of co­op­er­a­tion on Iraq at the sum­mit, to be held Thurs­day and Fri­day in the Egyp­tian re­sort of Sharm elSheikh, the sources warn.

The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion has in­vested sig­nif­i­cantly in the Egypt meet­ing, which Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice will at­tend. Army Gen. David H. Pe­traeus, the top U.S. com­man­der in Iraq, said in a television in­ter­view last Thurs­day that the United States holds a “lot of hope” that the con­fer­ence will serve as a cat­a­lyst for gar­ner­ing re­gional and in­ter­na­tional sup­port for solv­ing Iraq’s prob­lems.

David Sat­ter­field, the State De­part­ment’s co­or­di­na­tor for Iraq, has been in the re­gion for two weeks try- ing to bro­ker be­hind-the-scenes agree­ments in the run-up to the sum­mit. A debt-re­lief ac­cord for Iraq is ex­pected to be signed on the first day, and dis­cus­sions among Iraq’s neigh­bors are sched­uled for the sec­ond day.

The of­fi­cial rea­son for the Saudi de­ci­sion, Iraqi of­fi­cials said, is that the king’s sched­ule is full. But sources in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions say the king is in­creas­ingly un­happy that Ma­liki is not do­ing more on rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, de­spite pres­sure from the Arab world, the United States and other na­tions.

Saudi Ara­bia, ruled by a Sunni royal fam­ily, is con­cerned about the grow­ing in­flu­ence of Shi­ite-ruled Iran. The king­dom, guardian of Is­lam’s holi­est sites and birth­place of one of its most con­ser­va­tive ide­olo­gies, has been play­ing a more prom­i­nent role in re­gional af­fairs, so its snub is likely to res­onate through­out the Mid­dle East, Arab sources say.

Since tak­ing of­fice a year ago, Ma­liki’s gov­ern­ment has made re­peated prom­ises about reach­ing out to Iraq’ s Sunni mi­nor­ity, ad­dress­ing con­tro­ver­sial laws and rec­on­cil­ing po­lit­i­cally to end es­ca­lat­ing sec­tar­ian ten­sions. But Sunni gov­ern­ments charge that noth­ing has been done. Arab diplo­mats said on Satur­day that they had hoped that Ma­liki would come to the con­fer­ence with a list of steps al­ready taken, but that in­stead he will of­fer only more prom­ises.

Ma­liki has vis­ited the king­dom since tak­ing of­fice, but it was a cer­e­mo­nial “get ac­quainted” meet­ing. He wanted a sec­ond meet­ing to ad­dress grow­ing dif­fer­ences, Iraqi sources said.

The Saudi de­ci­sion fol­lows Ab­dul­lah’s state­ment at an Arab League sum­mit a month ago that the U.S. pres­ence in Iraq is an “il­le­git­i­mate oc­cu­pa­tion.”

Be­fore the con­fer­ence, Saudi Ara­bia agreed to for­give 80 per­cent of Iraq’s debt, which was ac­crued un­der Sad­dam Hus­sein. Much of it dates to Iraq’s war against Iran in the 1980s. Wash­ing­ton and Bagh­dad had hoped that the king­dom would for­give all of it. Arab sources say Iraq may not get the de­gree of debt re­lief that it had ex­pected.

The Saudi snub comes amid in­di­ca­tions from Ira­nian of­fi­cials that For­eign Min­is­ter Manouchehr Mot­taki might not at­tend the sum­mit — which could un­der­mine U.S. hopes of a po­ten­tial meet­ing be­tween Rice and her Ira­nian coun­ter­part. Last week, Rice ap­pealed to Mot­taki to come to Egypt, say­ing a boy­cott would be a “missed op­por­tu­nity.” Dur­ing talks in Ankara, Turkey, Euro­pean Union for­eign pol­icy chief Javier Solana ap­pealed to Ira­nian na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Ali Lar­i­jani to send a top of­fi­cial to Egypt. Iran said a fi­nal de­ci­sion will be made on Mon­day, but ini­tial in­di­ca­tions are that Tehran may send a lower-level for­eign min­istry of­fi­cial, ac­cord­ing to Ira­nian sources.

Iraqi sources said Turk­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Ab­dul­lah Gul is un­likely to at­tend the sum­mit be­cause he is now the rul­ing-party can­di­date for pres­i­dent.

POOL PHOTO BY KAZU­MASA TAMAKAMI

King Ab­dul­lah con­grat­u­lates Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, who re­ceived a dec­o­ra­tion from the Saudi leader. Abe’s of­fi­cial visit to Riyadh came on the same day the king re­fused to meet with the prime min­is­ter of Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki planned sub­stan­tive talks.

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