Gates, Rice Offer Assurances, Garner Commitments from Iraq's Neighbors
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, July 31, 2007 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got firm commitments here today from Iraq’s neighbors that they’ll continue to support the Iraqi government and counter forces trying to derail it.
Gates and Rice also assured their Arab counterparts that the United States won’t change its current strategy in Iraq without carefully considering the impact it would have on security throughout the region.
Speaking with reporters after meetings with the Gulf Cooperation Council and Jordanian and Egyptian leaders, the secretaries said many expressed concerns about a change of course in Iraq that could destabilize the Middle East.
“There clearly is concern … that the United States will … withdraw precipitously from Iraq or in some way that is destabilizing to the entire region,” Gates said. “We assured them … that long-term security and stability of the region will be considered utmost.”
Gates said he felt comfortable offering those assurances because, despite where people in Washington stand on Iraq, they’re showing a growing recognition that actions there could create a domino effect.
“What I have begun to hear is more and more of an undertone, even from those who oppose the president’s policies, of the need to take into account the consequences if we make a change in our policies and the dangers inherent in doing it unwisely,” he said. “I think a growing body of opinion in Washington, wherever you are on the issue of withdrawal, that whatever we do next in Iraq needs to be done very carefully, very thoughtfully and with a view to the long-term stability of the region.”
Rice said discussions with the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that followed, emphasized that President Bush will use a wide lens when he assesses the Iraq benchmark report to be delivered in September. The report, to be prepared largely by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, will gauge progress in Iraq and help determine if the U.S. strategy there is working.
“Policies and decisions that the president is pursing in Iraq will … have at their core an understanding of the fundamental importance of a stable Iraq to stability of this region,” Rice said she and Gates assured the neighbors.
Today’s talks focused heavily on work under way in Iraq and what additional steps Iraq’s neighbors need to take to speed up progress. “All of Iraq’s neighbors could do more to stabilize Iraq,” Rice said. “Everybody recognizes that if Iraq is going to be stable against what are very difficult circumstances, that everybody is going to have to do more.”
Toward that end, the Gulf Cooperation Council members -- Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- as well as Jordan and Egypt joined the United States in pledging to step up support for the Iraqi government.
In a joint statement released following today’s meeting, the participants reaffirmed their shared vision of “a stable, peaceful and prosperous Middle East and their commitment to work together to achieve this common goal.”
All showed a clear recognition that what happens in Iraq affects the whole region and reaffirmed their commitment to helping it build a strong government able to stand up against the threats it faces, Rice said.
“The Iraqis have a very tough battle against some very determined enemies,” she said. “What I heard today and what we heard from the Egyptians is that … these states know that if the determined enemies are successful, then this whole region is going to be chaotic.”
The council also reaffirmed its recognition of Iraq’s sovereignty and called for an end to interference in its affairs. They specifically condemned supplying arms and training to militia and armed groups who oppose government security forces.
In its statement, the council called on Iraq’s neighbors to take “all necessary steps” to interdict foreign terrorists attempting to move into Iraq, as well as arms and financing to support them.
The council urged the Iraqi people to work together to build national reconciliation and disband militia groups to give Iraqi security forces an opportunity to strengthen their capabilities.
They also pledged to work together to expand their financial and political support for the Iraqi government.
Rice said there’s concern among many of its neighbors that Iraq’s government is moving too slowly on the political front. “There is concern, in general, that the Iraqi government needs to make more progress on the course of national reconciliation, which is at the core of an Iraq that is nonsectarian and … in which all Iraqis can live and prosper,” she said. “And I think it is no secret that there has been concern that, on the political front, progress has not been as rapid as people would have hoped.”
But Rice said she also sensed “an understanding that there are also responsibilities that Iraq’s neighbors have to help that reconciliation take place.”
The trip here is Gates and Rice’s first joint trip since Gates took office in December and is aimed to shore up support for Iraq among its Gulf neighbors while reaffirming U.S. commitment to the region. “The president asked us to come out to the region to affirm to our allies and friends … the enduring commitment of the United States to security and stability and progress in the Middle East,” Rice said.
Gates cited long-term friendships and security relationships in the region and said he and Rice told the Arab neighbors today that the United States intends to stand by them.
“We are out here to talk about the long term,” he said. “The United States has been in this region and in the Gulf for some 60 years. We have every intention of being here for a lot longer.
“We are here to reassure all of our friends that we will continue to honor our commitments and responsibilities,” he added.
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