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April 28, 2003

Iraq's neighbors face U.S. clout
What are the arab nations in the ME thinking, doing, now that there is a very strong U.S. military presence in the region?
CAIRO, Egypt -- With varying degrees of dread, Iraq's neighbors are coming to grips with a new Middle East that is dominated as never before by the United States.

The leaders of these nations found themselves sidelined as mere observers during the war. So they have scrambled in the past two weeks to contain, as well as to accommodate, the expanded U.S. military and political presence on their doorsteps.

Arab officials and their counterparts in Turkey and Iran, in a series of consultations and meetings, have sought to keep American attention focused on Iraq and to reassert their own roles in regional affairs.

To that end, they rallied recently to exert intense pressure on Syria to moderate its policies. That helped defuse the tensions caused by the Bush administration's accusations that Syria was harboring fugitives from the deposed Iraqi government.

Egypt emphasized its own importance as a regional go-between when it intervened last week to resolve a conflict between Palestinian leaders that could have derailed efforts to restart peace negotiations with Israel.

But Iraq's neighbors also find themselves even more divided than before in confronting U.S. supremacy in the region and more at odds with their own populations.

The war also exposed the deep rift between the rich Persian Gulf nations, which were already hosts to the U.S. military, and the rest of the Arab world.

It upset the traditional alliance between the United States and Turkey, where the five-month-old government proved unable to get political backing for helping the U.S. war effort. At the same time, the position of Israel has been strengthened by the elimination of Saddam Hussein's government and the installation of a U.S. interim administration in Iraq.

"It's a totally new game, and it's difficult to foresee all its dimensions," said Muhammad Sid Ahmed, a veteran political commentator in Egypt. He predicted that traditional U.S. allies might find themselves usurped as regional players, especially as mediators in the Arab-Israeli conflict, because the United States will be preoccupied with remaking Iraq.

"America has obtained enormous power by succeeding so easily in Iraq," Sid Ahmed said. But other countries might make it difficult for the United States' friends in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, because "a newcomer has come to occupy that privileged place."[more]