SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pleaded with Arab allies yesterday to shore up the beleaguered Shiite-dominated government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, despite a rising conviction among the Sunni Muslim regimes that Baghdad is pursuing a sectarian agenda aimed at oppressing Iraq's Sunnis.
On the first stop of a rare joint visit to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two senior Bush administration officials sought to assure leaders from several Persian Gulf countries gathered at this Red Sea resort that it was in their interest to see al-Maliki succeed, arguing that Iraq could serve as a bulwark against expansionism by Shiite-led Iran.
The two Cabinet members tried to assuage Sunni concerns that al-Maliki's regime is becoming a client of Iran by insisting that it has shown signs of moving against Iranian-backed Shiite militias inside Iraq. They pointed to Iraq's allowing the detention of alleged Iranian operatives and an improvement in behavior of Iraq's security forces.
"All of Iraq's neighbors could do more to stabilize Iraq," Rice said at a joint news conference with Gates after daylong meetings, which culminated in talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "These states know that if the determined enemies are successful, then this whole region is going to be chaotic."
At a news conference with Rice earlier in the day, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit insisted that his government and other Sunni regimes were already working to stabilize Iraq. "The Egyptian [and Gulf] Arab commitment is always to help a unified Iraq to reach that point of full stability," Gheit said. "That we have been trying to do for four years."
The two U.S. Cabinet secretaries came bearing new multibillion-dollar arms deals for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, although the Saudi deal - which a senior Defense Department official said is expected to be worth at least $20 billion over 10 years - has yet to be finalized.
But administration officials insisted the arms deals were not intended as sweeteners to encourage increased Saudi and Egyptian backing for the al-Maliki government.
"What these arms sales agreements are about are the long-term relationships we have with these countries and our long-term interest in their security and them feeling secure," said a senior Defense official traveling on Gates' plane. "Iraq is one piece of that. Iran is one piece of that. There are other factors as well. These are 10-year agreements."
Reacting to the arms deals, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, "Washington has taken such a move to save the U.S. arms manufacturing companies from bankruptcy."
Meetings with the Saudi royal family, which began late last night in Jeddah, are central to the diplomatic push.
Iraqi lawmakers and a senior U.S. military officer in Baghdad said recently that the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from Saudi Arabia. Senior administration officials insist the Saudis have made strides in blocking Saudi nationals from slipping into Iraq as insurgent fighters, but they also acknowledge Riyadh could do more to control its borders and use its influence on Sunni tribes inside Iraq to back the government.
The senior defense official played down reports yesterday that Saudi officials were actively backing Sunni insurgents inside Iraq, saying the Pentagon has no such intelligence and such inferences have been "overdrawn."
Still, officials acknowledged that the Saudis continued to view al-Maliki's government as highly susceptible to Iranian influence and that the U.S. has a long way to go to convince the Saudis and other wary Sunni Arab allies that the Baghdad leadership can be trusted.
During yesterday's meetings, Gates said some Gulf allies expressed concerns that the current political atmosphere in the U.S. could lead to a near-term drawdown of troops in Iraq. Gates said he insisted that even those in the U.S. advocating a quick withdrawal are mindful of preventing any change of strategy in Iraq from destabilizing the entire region.
Peter Spiegel and Noha El-Hennawy write for the Los Angeles Times.