April 22, 2008 / 1:06 PM / 11 years ago

Arab angst over Shi'ite power underpins Iraq position

By Andrew Hammond - Analysis

RIYADH (Reuters) - Ever since the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, Sunni Arab countries have had trouble adjusting to the emergence of a powerful Shi’ite-led Iraq.

Sunni Arab governments have held back from establishing full diplomatic ties with Baghdad, citing security concerns, the continued reliance of the government on large numbers of foreign troops and extensive influence from neighboring Iran.

No ambassador from any Sunni Arab nation has been stationed permanently in Baghdad since Egypt’s envoy was kidnapped and killed in 2005, and Iraqi and U.S. politicians hammered at the issue at a regional meeting in Kuwait this week.

Iraq was once a major player in the Arab political firmament, receiving Gulf Arab funding for its 1980-88 war against Iran in a pan-Arab effort to stem the influence of non-Arab Shi’ite Muslim power Iran after its revolution of 1979.

But with Shi’ite clerics and politicians dominating the scene after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdallah have expressed views revealing a fear that Iraq was no longer part of the club.

“There is a new regional scene and a fear for the future of Sunni political hegemony as a Shi’ite camp forms with the Shi’ite ascendance in Iraq,” said Fouad Ibrahim, a Saudi author of a study on Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority.

“Most Arab governments are not willing to see Shi’ite domination. They would accept Shi’ite participation but not domination of Iraq,” said Mohamed el-Sayed Said, Egyptian political scientist and editor of al-Badil newspaper.

Diplomats in Riyadh say Saudi Arabia, which considers itself the leading representative of mainstream Sunni Islam, decided last year to reduce its dealings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki after concluding he was running a Shi’ite sectarian government too close to Iran.

WATERSHED IN 2006

Sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs threatened to erupt in civil war in 2006, prompting the United States to increase its troop presence in a strategic rethink and enflaming public opinion in some Sunni Arab countries.

Iraq is also home to a large Kurdish community, which is mostly Sunni Muslim and controls the northern Kurdistan region.

Saudi Arabia has led Arab efforts to back the Lebanese government in a protracted dispute with the opposition led by the Shi’ite Hezbollah-led, which is backed by Syria and Iran.

“Only when the Arab states are convinced that Iraq is not being influenced by Iran, will they consider restoring diplomatic relations,” said Ghassan al-Atiya, an Iraqi analyst based in London, adding that U.S. troops were in fact a positive factor in the eyes of the U.S.-allied Arab governments.

“The Arab states believe the American presence is helping to create stability and curbing Iranian influence,” he said.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have said they want to see Maliki’s government engage in more political reconciliation with the Sunni Arab minority, which naturally looks to the surrounding Arab neighborhood for support.

The United States, also irked over what it sees as a lack of reconciliation efforts, wants Arab states to follow through on promises to right off debts run up under Saddam Hussein’s rule.

About $66.5 billion of Iraq’s foreign debt has so far been forgiven, according to U.S. State Department estimates. Of the estimated $56 billion to $80 billion debt that remains, more than half is owed to Gulf Arab countries.

Washington further says Syria remains a main conduit for Sunni Islamist militants, many of them Saudi, making their way into Iraq to fight under the banner of al Qaeda.

But Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said whatever the various concerns Arab states had, they would better served by full diplomatic representation.

“It’s no good complaining about the expanded Iranian influence here, or criticizing the situation or being uncomfortable with the political process and so on, and at the same time sitting on the fence,” he told Reuters this month.

Additional reporting by Noah Barkin, Dean Yates and Khaled al-Ansary in Baghdad and Jonathan Wright in Cairo; Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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