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Maliki’s snub reverberates through Middle East

A startling show of Iraqi mistrust of neighbor Jordan has sent a shiver across the Middle East on Thursday, raising fears of a region-wide Sunni-Shiite split that the United States may be powerless to control.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraq’s Shiite leader was firm, his aides say — he would not talk to President Bush with Jordan’s Sunni king listening.

That startling show of mistrust in a neighbor led to a cancellation of a meeting between the three leaders Wednesday night and sent a cold shiver across the Middle East on Thursday, raising fears of a region-wide Sunni-Shiite split that the United States may be powerless to control and Iran could benefit from.

Few things would harm the region more than for Iraq’s hostilities to infect other Arab countries, some of them U.S. allies already clutching at stability amid new signs of extremism.

It would also be detrimental to Iraq if its neighbors begin taking sides in its internal fight, intensifying the march toward all-out civil war.

Yet both appear to be happening, as moderate Sunni governments like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, long known as the region’s powers, exhibit rising distrust toward newly influential Shiites in the region — and vice versa.

Amman downplays incident
Jordanian officials played down Wednesday’s flap, saying there had been no plans for a formal three-way meeting among Bush, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, only a brief social call. The U.S. asserted the same.

Al-Maliki said he meant no snub to either Abdullah or Bush and noted he already had met separately with the king. “That was not part of our agenda, a trilateral meeting,” he said.

But two senior officials traveling with al-Maliki, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the information’s sensitivity, said the prime minister had not wanted to travel to Jordan in the first place and decided, once in Amman, that he did not want “a third party” in talks with Bush.

“We insisted that the meeting be canceled,” said one official. “Iraq does not need a third party to be involved.”

In part, al-Maliki may have feared looking weak to Shiite hard-line supporters back home who already had suspended government participation to protest the talks and a leaked U.S. memo that questioned his resolve.

Al-Maliki's stratagem
As head of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, al-Maliki also may have feared something of an ambush if Bush and Abdullah jointly pressed him to reach out to Sunni hard-liners and rein in Shiite militias.

Or, he may simply have disliked looking like the junior partner in front of the Sunni king, said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi.

Abdullah angered many Shiites when he warned two years ago of a Shiite “crescent” extending from Iran to Lebanon. Earlier this week, he said the region soon could face three civil wars — in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Abdullah, with much to fear in an Iraqi civil war, may have meant to just raise alarm bells worldwide.

But “the Shiites look at that declaration ... as anti-Shiite and anti-Iran,” Kamhawi said.

Ominously for the region, the Amman flap was not isolated. The same night, the leader of Iraq’s largest Shiite political group was quoted by Arab TV stations as saying that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs would be the biggest losers if civil war came.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim immediately denied he made the remark and issued a statement saying a civil war would be a “a loss for everyone and not a particular sect.” But sharp retorts from Sunni leaders topped TV news programs across the Mideast.

Iran remains the constant
Iran is the subtext in all these quarrels.

Sunnis both inside Iraq and across the region have long claimed that Iran is meddling in Iraq. They have watched with worry as Iran’s influence has expanded not just to Iraq but to countries like Lebanon, where it backs the Shiite militant Hezbollah group.

Shiites in Iraq counter that while they may naturally have ties to Iran, which is also majority Shiite, they are not its stooge. Instead, they believe Sunnis both inside and outside Iraq simply resent their new power in Iraq and the general Shiite momentum in the region.

The Bush administration had hoped to calm Iraq in part by getting Sunni insurgent sympathizers into talks with al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government. It has pushed Sunni allies like Jordan to take the lead.

The events of the last few days show that may be dicey.