updated 4/22/2008 6:57:54 PM ET 2008-04-22T22:57:54

The United States and Iran, the two nations with the most at stake in Iraq, pointedly ignored each other Tuesday as Iraq's premier unsuccessfully pleaded for immediate financial and diplomatic backing from rich Arab neighbors still leery of Tehran's influence on Baghdad.

A sharp exchange between Saudi and Iranian diplomats underscored the mistrust that has hampered Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's mission to win those specific commitments.

Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki did not speak or shake hands as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he cannot understand why Arab states have not forgiven Iraq's crushing debts, made new loans or sent ambassadors to Baghdad.

"We find it difficult to explain why diplomatic exchange (between Iraq and its Middle Eastern neighbors) has not taken place," al-Maliki told foreign ministers from nearby nations. "Many foreign countries have kept their diplomatic missions in Baghdad and did not make security excuses."

Rice sat diagonally across a large U-shaped table from Mottaki as Al-Maliki spoke at the opening of a meeting of Iraq's neighbors held in Kuwait — the third such meeting in the past year.

A copy of the conference's draft resolution obtained by The Associated Press calls for increased help from Iraq's neighbors in fighting militias and "assistance in solving the issue of Iraqi debts." But Iraq's neighbors have made similar pledges at two previous meetings, with little follow-through. They have also promised to open diplomatic missions in Baghdad, but none has yet done so.

Promises and patience
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Rice said they heard encouraging signals on both the diplomatic and economic fronts, but Arab states offered no specific new promises. "We need to be patient. This is how politics works in this part of the world," Zebari told reporters.

Tuesday's conference was a rare occasion where top diplomats from Iran and the United States were even in the same room. Rice told reporters she did greet Syria's envoy to the session.

The Bush administration blames both Iran and Syria for feeding the insurgency inside Iraq, but considers Iran the far greater problem.

"We would hope that all of Iraq's neighbors would choose to be positive neighbors. I don't think it's any secret that we do not believe that to be the case with all of Iraq's neighbors," Rice said. "The good thing about meetings like this is that it periodically calls people to account."

Rice congratulated the group for agreeing to hold its next session in Baghdad. Iraq wanted to host such a meeting last year, but Arab diplomats resisted citing concerns for their safety. Overall violence has declined, especially in Baghdad, in the past year.

Sectarian mistrust
The U.S. was midwife to Iraq's Shiite-led democratic government, and Washington remains al-Maliki's greatest patron. He is trying to balance that relationship with the complex one he and his government maintain with next-door Iran, Washington's principal adversary in the Middle East.

The Sunni Arab neighbors al-Maliki is courting, meanwhile, have a strong stake in keeping Iraq — which is majority Shiite — firmly in the Arab orbit as a buffer against expanding influence by Iran, the world's largest Shiite nation. But they are still leery of al-Maliki's government and the deep Iranian ties of its main coalition members.

Underscoring that sectarian mistrust, delegates at a closed meeting on the eve of Tuesday's conference described a squabble between Mottaki and Prince Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister of Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia.

"Iranian meddling in Iraq is obvious, and the solution to Iraq's security problems is in the hands of the Iranians," Saud said.

Mottaki interrupted him, asking, "Is this a comment or an accusation?"

Saud retorted: "I did not interrupt you when you gave your address, why you are interrupting me?" Mottaki then apologized.

Delegates who described the exchange spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed to media.

Later, Mottaki said he spoke to Saudi delegates about the situation in the region and suggested the United States was dividing Arab countries and Iran. "The enemies of the region are seeking to sow the seeds of discord among the countries of our area and this is what we should be very alert to," he told a press conference.

Asked about U.S. accusations that Iran supports Shiite militias in Iraq, Mottaki said the problem was foreign troops and called on Washington to withdraw its forces from Iraq. "The main players on the Iraqi playground are the foreign forces. They insist on their policies there, although they are failed policies," he said.

Al-Maliki said he will be looking for tangible support, including relief from Iraq's $67 billion foreign debt — most of it owed to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

"There are countries that support the political process and are opening embassies here. We need the others to open embassies here, too," al-Maliki told reporters.

The direct appeal to Arab heavyweights highlights the regional dilemma posed by Iraq.

Al-Maliki is hoping that his ongoing military crackdown against Shiite militants — mostly fighters allied to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — will allay Arab fears that he has Iranian leanings, as well as quell a bias against his own Sunni population, which long held a privileged position under Saddam Hussein.

Sunni militant groups like al-Qaida in Iraq, mistrustful of Iraq's Shiite government, have warned Arab states not to open embassies in Baghdad. The capital's first major car bomb of the war struck the Jordanian Embassy, killing 19 people. Diplomats from Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have all been either killed, wounded or kidnapped in Iraq.

The venue of Tuesday's meeting was symbolic because Kuwait was invaded by Saddam in 1990. Baghdad's current estrangement, however, is linked to distrust by neighboring Sunni Arab states that al-Maliki's Shiite-led government has any interests at heart but its own.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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