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Relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbors have worsened in recent weeks, highlighted by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s September 5 criticism of Arab leaders for failing to express sympathy or offer aid in the wake of the August 31 stampede that left nearly 1,000 Iraqi Shiites dead. “We stood with our Arab brothers in their hard times,” Talabani told reporters, referring to recent terrorist attacks in Egypt; he called their silence “gross negligence.” The stampede marked the largest one-day death toll since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Talabani was also responding to criticism from Arab leaders about Iraq’s newly drafted constitution, experts say. Amre Moussa, secretary of the Arab League, of which Iraq is one of the founding members, admonished Iraqi leaders for failing to meet Sunni demands to include a provision in the constitution calling Iraq an Arab state as well as an Islamic country. Talabani, a Kurd, says such a provision is unnecessary and unfair to Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities. “The other [Arab constitutions] do not have this text…Why do they not make such a demand from Sudan? Why this insistence on demanding it from Iraq? They know Iraq is a multinational country,” Talabani said.
Iraqi leaders have also criticized their Arab neighbors for not establishing diplomatic missions in Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi leaders say restoring their presence would help bolster the new government’s legitimacy. But Arab leaders say deploying diplomats to Iraq is still too dangerous, particularly after an Egyptian and two Algerian diplomats were slain by foreign insurgents in July. Arab foreign ministers are slated to hold a meeting in Cairo October 1 to address, among other issues, restoring full-fledged diplomatic relations with Iraq .
Foreign financing of the Iraqi insurgency
Iraqi leaders have recently accused neighboring Arab states, especially Jordan and Syria , of abetting the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq by allowing Baathist sympathizers to finance insurgent activity from abroad. In Jordan, for instance, many of these finances flow from relatives of Saddam Hussein, who “have huge sums of money.” They “are supporting political and media activities and other efforts to revive the Baath Party,” Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Iraq ’s prime minister, told the New York Times August 22.
Jordan’s King Abdullah, one of the United States’ staunchest allies in the region, has not commented publicly about the accusations but claims his country has been tough on terrorism by securing its long border with Iraq and clamping down on extremist organizations based in Jordan. Jordanian officials have arrested several members of the al-Haramein Brigades and al-Qaeda in Iraq , the terrorist group led by Jordanian-born Abu al-Zarqawi that was allegedly behind the August 19 Katyusha rocket attack that nearly struck a U.S. warship in a Jordanian port.
The financing comes largely from private, not public, sources, experts say. “I suppose if Saddam had lots of money outside of Iraq, it’s just a guess, maybe some of this money is used to finance the Baathists,” says Reuven Paz, an Israeli terrorism expert. “As to Iraq’s Islamic [insurgency], I suspect it comes from private Saudi sources.” Still, some Iraqi leaders suspect the authorities in these Arab states are turning a blind eye to the flow of funds. “There’s no reason for these states to support [this financing] except for their general sympathy for their fellow Sunnis,” says Jeffrey White, Berrie Defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Some experts say Iraq’s charges against Jordan are overblown. The country has begun to curb the activities of its large Iraqi community of Baathist sympathizers. “The Jordanian government is looking much more closely at [Saddam’s] family and restricting them and their activities,” says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director at the International Crisis Group. But more could be done, says Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant secretary of terrorist financing and financial crimes at the U.S. Treasury, who urged Jordan in July to enact tougher laws against money laundering and develop better financial intelligence.
Arab views on Iraqi federalism
Many of Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors are uneasy about Iraqi federalism—the division of power and wealth between its regions and Baghdad. Moussa, who heads the Arab League, called the constitution’s clauses on federalism “dangerous” and “a recipe for chaos.” Some Arab leaders fear the splintering of Iraq into oil-rich regions run by Kurds in the north and Shiite clerics in the south. “The mainline view [in the Arab world] is Iraq should stay together and stay an effective political unit,” White says. “Their concern is that Kurdish autonomy and potentially Shiite autonomy will leave some kind of rump of a state left over [for Sunnis].”
Other Arab leaders are worried by what they perceive as Iran’s growing influence over Iraq’s Shiite leadership, experts say. Earlier this year, King Abdullah of Jordan warned Iraq ’s leadership against creating a “Shiite crescent,” stretching from Iran to Lebanon. “The Jordanians fear the new Iraqi government has been taken over by Iranian sympathizers and is basically a proxy for Iran,” Hiltermann says. “They fear radical Shiites of the [Ayatollah] Khomeini brand are going to take over the Gulf and its oil. Keep in mind Jordan has no oil.”
Arab views on Iraqi insurgency
A small but visible number of the insurgents in Iraq hail from Arab states in the region, namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan. Some Iraqi leaders have accused these states, particularly Syria, of not doing enough to shut down the insurgency’s “underground railroad” over Iraq’s borders, White says. “No question Syria has a good idea of what’s going on. It’s a question of using the powers of a police state to chase down and extradite those involved in the insurgency.” Jordan, for example, is doing much more to stem the flow of insurgents—and financing—into Iraq than Syria, despite the fact that “the Jordanian state is weaker than the Syrian state,” says Daniel Byman, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “The Jordanian security forces are very organized and they do their best to protect the border from any attack from Jordanian soil either toward Israel or toward Iraq,” Paz says. Hence, most smuggling of insurgents into Iraq—and U.S. combat missions designed to stop it—is occurring along the Iraq-Syria border.
There appears to be widespread sympathy among the Arab people for Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, experts say, particularly in Jordan, with its sizable population of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees largely hostile to U.S. foreign policy in the region. “Jordan is a very important base for the development of local jihad,” Paz says, but argues that average Jordanians do not support the Sunni or foreign jihadi insurgents in Iraq. A July poll by the Pew Research Center, however, found that Jordan was the only Middle East country where support for suicide bombings against civilians, in Iraq or elsewhere, has risen. Another Pew poll released in June found just 21 percent of Jordanians had a favorable impression of the United States.