MIDEAST NATIONS PREPARE SECRET PLANS ON IRAQ

BY SALAH NASRAWI

The Associated Press

Writer

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) Top intelligence officers from several Arab countries and Turkey have been meeting secretly to coordinate their governments’ strategies in case civil war erupts in Iraq and in an attempt to block Iran’s interference in the war-torn nation, Arab diplomats said Tuesday.

The meetings came after several Arab leaders voiced concerns about possible Shiite domination of Iraq and their alliance with Iran.

The four diplomats said intelligence chiefs from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and non-Arab Turkey held a series of meetings over the last few weeks to assess the situation in Iraq and work out plans to avoid any regional backlash that may result from sectarian conflict in Iraq.

The diplomats in several Middle Eastern capitals, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Iran and Syria have been excluded from the talks.

One diplomat whose country is involved in the talks said the officials are focusing on the proposed U.S.-Iranian dialogue on Iraq and the implications on Arabs and Turkey of any “American-Iranian deal.”

Government officials in Egypt and Jordan declined to answer questions on the meetings.

Reports in the Arab press have suggested that any agreement between Washington and Tehran will be at the expense of Arabs.

Arab nations, mostly Sunni and traditionally suspicious of Iran, are deeply concerned about what they see as Iran’s growing influence in Iraq. Turkey, also a key Sunni Muslim nation, is worried about Iraq’s split into sectarian and ethnic entities that will give rise to Kurdish ambitions for independence.

Last year, Jordan’s King Abdullah II accused Shiite-dominated Iran of trying to influence events in Iraq. He warned that Iran was seeking to create “a Shiite crescent” that would disrupt the balance of power in the region.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal made similar warnings.

Before Iraqis voted on their new constitution last year, both Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and Abdul Rahman al-Attiya, head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, lobbied to include a clear reference about Iraq’s “Arab identity” in the document.

Elections held in January produced a parliament dominated by Shiites and Kurds, and a ruling coalition by both groups is bound to have close ties to Persian and Shiite Iran.

Many Arab governments say that sidelining the Sunnis would increase Iran’s influence in Iraq and the whole region anathema for Sunni Arabs and a nightmare for many Washington policy-makers.

At least one meeting of the intelligence chiefs was held in Cairo in late March, shortly after the U.S. administration said it wanted to open contacts with Tehran about Iraq, the diplomats said.

They said further meetings are planned, including at least one in Cairo this month to finalize the strategy.

Since the ousting of Saddam Hussein three years ago, officials from Iraq’s neighbors have held scores of meetings on Iraq but the discussions have not yielded concrete efforts to help restoring stability to the beleaguered nation.