Arabs seek Iraq-for-Mideast peace deal

CAIRO — Moderate Arab governments planned to tell visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that they will help Washington stabilise Iraq if the US in turn takes more active steps to revive a broad peace initiative between Israel and its Arab neighbours, Arab officials and media said Sunday.

The deal, dubbed “Iraq for Land,” is expected to be proposed during a meeting between Rice and her counterparts from eight Arab countries in Kuwait on Tuesday.

It echoes widespread Arab feelings that a lasting Middle East peace cannot be achieved as long as Israel doesn’t reach a settlement to hand over to Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon the lands it occupies since the 1967 Mideast war.

In the US, a bipartisan panel on Iraq headed by former secretary of State James A. Baker III had said in December that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute could help ease tensions in Iraq, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair says a resolution to the conflict is key to Middle East stability. Israel disputes these conclusions.

US Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones also recently told AP that an Israeli-Palestinian peace would “be a huge plus for regional stability”, though not in itself the key to pacifying Iraq.

Rice arrived Saturday in the region for a weeklong tour to explore a fresh start in the Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and muster support for the US policy in Iraq, but warned that enduring Mideast peace cannot be stamped “Made in America”. During a meeting with Rice on Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his opposition to an Israeli plan to establish a provisional Palestinian state along temporary borders — as the Israeli foreign minister recently suggested.

Rice responded by vowing to deepen Washington’s involvement in Mideast peace efforts, reiterating US commitment to the internationally backed roadmap which plans for temporary Palestinian borders.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, another American ally and a regional heavyweight, said he wrote a letter to US President George W. Bush urging him to help resume the peace process along broader lines than the long-stalled roadmap.

Mubarak will “offer a vision, ideas and proposals” to Rice when they meet on Monday, said his spokesman.

“We have a clear vision for a political horizon that will provide an opportunity to reach a just and comprehensive peace settlement,” Mubarak was quoted as saying Sunday in the state-owned Rose Al Youssef newspaper.

“It is high time that the Palestinian cause be given a push, which will open the door for other tracks,” he added, apparently referring to the deadlocked peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Arab diplomats said Mubarak’s views — shared by other key regional leaders — will be presented forcefully to Rice when she meets the Arab foreign ministers in Kuwait.

“She will listen to one voice [saying] that if the United States wants Arabs’ help in Iraq they should help them in Palestine,” said one Arab diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

Mamoun Fandy said in the Asharq Awsat newspaper that Arabs must “name names and say clearly that the new equation in the region is ‘Land for Iraq”.’ “Arabs have no interest in engaging in Iraq without reaping the fruits for Palestinians,” wrote Fandy, the president of Fandy Associates, a Washington-based research group believed to express Saudi thinking.

Bush announced on Wednesday his decision to send 21,500 more US troops to Iraq to try to stabilise the country and warned Arab nations against a surge in extremism in the region should America fail.

He called on Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states to increase their support for Iraq’s government and sought backing for his plan in telephone calls to King Abdullah and Mubarak.

However, Arab officials say regional leaders aren’t eager to help the Iraqi government, dominated by Shiites and deemed too close to Iran.

These Sunni leaders appear terrified at the prospect of a US withdrawal and all-out civil war in Iraq, and are pushing for a larger share of power by Arab Sunnis there.

In a thinly veiled criticism of the Iraqi government, Egypt’s presidential spokesman Suleiman Awwad said that alienating “a certain sect while defending interest of other sects will not achieve national reconciliation.” Some leading Arab media also say the new White House plans does not do enough to end sectarian strife in Iraq.

But Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal stressed that a change in US policy toward Iraq was inevitable. “Unity of Iraq is necessary. Independence of Iraq is necessary, and peace in Iraq is necessary,” Faisal said.

“None of these have been achieved so far. There must be a change, of course.”  

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