Iraq just a part of problem in Middle East

NEWS ANALYSIS

US must engage region but will Syria and Iran play ball? Will Bush bite the bullet?

ALL eyes may have been on a US exit strategy from Iraq.

But what the 100-plus page report of the Baker-Hamilton commission makes clear is this: Iraq is not the Bush administration’s only problem in the Middle East, or even its most troublesome or pressing.

Iraq is just a piece of a complex puzzl e in the Middle East.

And the picture will not be complete without Syria and Iran.

The report recommends that the United States devise a far more aggressive diplomatic initiative in the region, something the Bush administration has been reluctant to try so far.

Initial contacts might be part of a regional conference on Iraq or broader Middle East peace issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But these must ultimately lead to direct and high-level talks between Washington, and Teheran and Damascus.

The bottom line is clear: The bloodshed will not end in Iraq unless all the other festering problems in the Middle East are dealt with.

Clearly, the 10-member bipartisan panel sees Iraq’s problems in a wider context with Sunnis and Shi’ites fighting for control.

Iraq has turned into a regional battleground, with Iran a key player. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Sunni Arab nations with close ties to the United States have voiced concern about Shi’ite Iran’s growing influence and its involvement in three regional conflicts.

Many Iraqi leaders, as well as Shi’ite militants in Iraq, have close ties with Iran, which also provides funds and support for the Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories – both organisations which challenge the existence of Israel.

Undoubtedly, there have been concerns about cross- border destabilisation. Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned late last month, for example, that the Middle East could be shaken by civil wars in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories by early next year.

In the case of Lebanon, both Iran and Syria are intent on using it as a proxy against Israel and strengthening their hand with Washington.

The interlocking conflicts in the region appear not to have been lost on the Iraq Study Group.

The recommendations put forward are for a more integral approach to Middle East policy that takes into account several underlying US aims: stabilising Iraq; settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; resolving the bloody problems between Lebanon and Syria; and searching for a détente with Iran.

The commission has mooted the idea of round-table talks, with regional states plus the US and Britain meeting to discuss Iraq. It would be similar to the one both countries attended to discuss Afghanistan after the US-led war there in 2001.

One of the first international conferences on Iraq was held in 2004 at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik. The conference was attended by the United Nations and the Arab League as well as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the US, Britain, France, Canada, Japan, Iran and Syria.

American officials believe the format of that conference might be a good vehicle for indirect talks with Syria and Iran. Significantly, this might give Washington a chance to address in particular Teheran’s nuclear ambitions. More broadly, the panel has fashioned a proposal that shares striking similarities to the Arab peace plan of 2002. It entails complete Arab recognition of Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab land.

This would allow the creation of a Palestinian state and restore the Golan Heights to Syria. Damascus would thus have little incentive to meddle in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon.

A close scrutiny of the commission report reveals that Iraq has become the fulcrum that the stability of the region rests upon. If things go right there, the rest of the jigsaw pieces might fall into place.

But this depends on whether Syria and Iran will play ball. It also is contingent on whether President George W. Bush will bite the bullet and follow through.

One thing is clear: All roads will lead to – and from – Baghdad.

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