US, Arab allies call on Iran not to meddle in Iraq

news32.jpgKUWAIT CITY (AFP) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and eight Arab counterparts called on Iran Tuesday not to meddle in Iraq’s affairs after discussing Washington’s plan to quell sectarian violence in the country, Kuwait’s foreign minister said.

“With respect to US policy towards Iran… the US and the Gulf expressed in [a] joint communique that we call to all countries to refrain from interfering in Iraqi internal affairs,” Sheikh Mohammad Al Sabah told a joint news conference with Rice after the talks in Kuwait.

“That is something that we are all concerned about. We would like the neighbouring countries to work together for peace and stability in Iraq,” he said.

Rice met with the foreign ministers of the “GCC+2” group of US allies that brings together Gulf Cooperation Council members Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as Egypt and Jordan.

The joint communique did not mention Iran by name but said that relations among countries “should be based on mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, and on the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations”.

The two sides said they wanted to prevent Iraq “becoming a battleground for regional and international powers”.

Rice, on a regional tour, was aiming to drum up support for US President George W. Bush’s “surge” strategy to tackle violence in Iraq with the deployment of an additional 21,500 troops.

She was also seeking financial aid from the oil-rich Gulf countries for the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, chiefly through debt forgiveness.

“The participants welcomed the commitment by the United States, as stated in President Bush’s recent speech, to defend the security of the Gulf, the territorial integrity of Iraq, and to ensure a successful, fair and inclusive political process that engages all Iraqi communities,” the joint statement said.

“We expressed our desire to see the president’s plan to reinforce the American military presence in Baghdad as a vehicle… to stabilize Baghdad and to prevent Iraq from sliding into this ugly war,” the Kuwaiti foreign minister said.

Rice earlier received cautious Saudi backing for Bush’s last-ditch strategy for Iraq.

“We agree with the objectives” of the US plan to bring peace to the war-torn country, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal said at a joint press conference with Rice in Riyadh earlier Tuesday.

But he was cautious about the means of reaching the objective.

“We cannot comment on the means that will be applied… We’re hoping that these objectives will be implemented, but the means are not in our hands. They are in the hands of the Iraqis,” he said.

Rice praised Saudi Arabia’s role in “urging national reconciliation” in Iraq, and welcomed a greater Arab engagement in efforts to reunify the Iraqis.

“If the Arab League is prepared to go forward with a reconciliation conference, that will also be very useful to the Iraqis,” she said.

The secretary of state turned her attention to Iraq and the Gulf after focusing on reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the first part of her regional tour that began at the weekend.

She admitted that Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Arab neighbours were sceptical about the ability of Maliki’s Shiite government to halt the sectarian violence that has pitted Sunni Arabs against Shiites.

“There are concerns about whether the Maliki government is prepared to take an even-handed, non-sectarian path… But everybody wants to give this a chance. That is the position of the people in the region and there is in fact a burden on the Iraqi government to perform,” Rice told reporters after arriving in Kuwait.

The joint statement stressed the need to dismantle factions in Iraq and expressed hope that Maliki’s government will “actively engage all components of the Iraqi people in a real political process and act in a manner that ensures inclusiveness”. The US plan revealed last week has come under fire in many Arab capitals, even among staunch allies in the Gulf, with critics saying it provides a recipe for more sectarian violence in Iraq that could spread elsewhere in the region.

But Rice on Monday won support from Cairo after meeting with President Hosni Mubarak in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor.  

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