Bush moves to stave off civil war in Iraq

He will meet Iraq’s PM and Jordan’s king in desperate bid for peace in Middle East.

US PRESIDENT George W. Bush heads to the Middle East this week for a crisis summit on Iraq amid concerns that the country is edging closer to large scale civil war.

Mr Bush will travel to Amman to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Jordanian King Abdullah for talks today and tomorrow, personally taking the lead as members of his administration fan out across the Middle East.

This sudden burst of diplomacy is aimed at finding a solution before Iraq implodes – drawing in neighbouring Iran and Syria, which are Washington’s main rivals in the region.

Pentagon consultant Daniel Goure told The Straits Times: “The Bush administration is making a concerted effort not just to counter these countries, but also to create a regional basis of support for US policy towards Iraq and the Middle East.”

Dr Goure, who also advises US security agencies, said Washington is taking the first steps towards implementing the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group before it releases its findings, possibly as soon as next month.

He said a major goal of the 10-member commission, which is led by former secretary of state James Baker, is to engage Syria, Iran and other regional states in a global Middle East peace effort.

It is one way to piece together Iraq’s sectarian fragments and halt the spiralling violence between the Sunnis and Shi’ites.

“The thinking in the Pentagon is that it will take a decade to bring stability to Iraq, assuming that the country does not fall apart,” Dr Goure said. “If it breaks up, we are looking at 30 to 40 years of being sucked into a quagmire. That is a nightmare scenario.”

The United States has been at war in Iraq for about three years and eight months – the length of American involvement in World War II.

How the US deals with Iran and Syria will be critical in pre-empting protracted military involvement.

Pressure on the US intensified last week when the two countries moved to improve ties with Baghdad. Iran, for example, hosted Iraqi President Jalal Talabani over the past two days.

In Teheran, Mr Talabani said he was seeking Iran’s help to stabilise his country, comments that undoubtedly would worry Washington, which has long accused the Iranian regime of sponsoring Shi’ite-led violence in Iraq.

The US, in response, has sought to stop the rising tide of Iranian influence by courting other regional states.

Vice-President Dick Cheney travelled at the weekend to Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, America’s key oil-producing ally in the Persian Gulf, for talks with King Abdullah.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will accompany Mr Bush when he meets Mr Maliki, is likely to follow up by meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

All eyes, however, will be on Mr Bush’s meeting with Mr Maliki in Jordan.

Dr Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East Programme at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr Bush is going into the summit with two objectives.

One is to pressure the Iraqi Prime Minister to be a more effective leader. The other is to assess whether he can get the job done.

“Mr Bush will certainly get the message across,” said Dr Alterman. “Whether he will be happy with what he hears is another thing.”

Critics have questioned whether Mr Maliki is in control of events in his country and wondered whether the summit will lead to solutions.

The US has been pressuring the Iraqi leader to crack down on the militias. But these groups are attached to Shi’ite political parties in his government and are part of his own political base. They have infiltrated the police and, to a lesser extent, the army.

“The President of the United States is going to spend, what, two days with this fiction – the fiction of an Iraqi government?” Mr George Will, a noted conservative columnist with the Washington Post, said in a talk show aired on ABC television.

“The way we now define success, we are down to the most minimalist definition, which is: Success is a government in Baghdad that governs the country.” Clearly, the US is running out of time.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said yesterday that the conflict in Iraq had entered a new phase steeped in sectarian violence.

Jordan’s King Abdullah warned last week that the Middle East faced the threat of civil strife not just in Iraq, but also in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

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