A lot happened this weekend while I was away from the computer nursing basketball injuries. The crackdown on the Sadrists, Condoleeza Rice's bizarre taunting of Moqtada al-Sadr, Sadr's warning of open warfare, and the mixed signals out of Tehran; escalation of the rumors that the Accordance Front is ready to return to Maliki's government (which may happen this time - they're probably fine with seeing Sadrists under fire, weakening a potential competitor down the road, and probably do want to get back into the government so they can have some goodies to deliver ahead of the provincial elections - but that may not be enough); various political moves within various Sunni groupings (both on the insurgency side and among the Awakenings). Hope to get to at least some of that this week.
But for today I've been following Rice's attempt to once again increase the pressure on Arab states to take a more active
role in support of Maliki's government by focusing on Iran. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh had an op-ed in the Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat today making a similar pitch, while Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshayr Zebari made the argument in Bahrain today. Presumably this will be a major part of Rice's and Maliki's appeal to the neighbors conference in Kuwait tomorrow.
To this point, the Gulf response has been muted: no commitments to reopening embassies or sending ambassadors or heads of state visiting (but vague promises to think about doing so "soon"), no new Saudi or Kuwaiti promises for relief of Iraq's billions in Saddam-era debt. In her press conference in Bahrain today, after meeting with representatives of 9 Arab states, Rice focused upon the prospect that Iraq might participate in future GCC meetings - "That's a very good step forward for the reintegration of Iraq into regional affairs" - without noting that Iran itself has recently been invited to such GCC meetings.
Arab columnists don't seem particularly swayed at this point. Former Kuwaiti Minister of Information Saad al-Ajami argued the other day in a syndicated column that the Gulf governments are not enthusiastic about US demands to normalize relations with the Maliki government for a whole host of reasons. A number of Gulf-based columnists have been arguing that Iran has already become the main player in Iraq, and only the United States seems unaware of it. Most continue to see Maliki's government as sectarian, arguing that the Arab neighbors do not appear eager to support Maliki before his government becomes more representative and there's a real political process aimed at national reconciliation. Tareq al-Homayed, the editor of the al-Sharq al-Awsat whose views often reflect those of the Saudi leadership, writes bluntly: "Mr. Maliki should know that there are some who consider him to be allied with 'neighboring states' – meaning Iran."
The real question, of course, is whether even a more explicit anti-Iranian line from Maliki (beyond just saying that an anti-Sadr operation to the benefit of another pro-Iranian party) would change their minds. Homayed argues that a clear statement from Maliki that he considers Iran the external power meddling in Iraq would be a powerful signal to Arab leaders. Such anti-Iranian statements from Gulf leaders, in private or public, may be encouraging the current American drum-beating on Iran's role in Iraq... along with a healthy dose of wishful thinking, and/or lack of perceived better options (at least ones that this administration could stomach).
I don't think many Arab leaders or pundits believe that Maliki could or would make such a move, making it a nice fallback position for them. I can't find many Arab commentators convinced by the notion of Maliki being part of any anti-Iranian coalition or by Rice's (or Maliki's) arguments that Basra showed he had changed his sectarian spots or given up his sectarian ways (nor am I sure why they should be, but that's a different question). It would probably take an awful lot to change their views at this point (I don't think that bringing the Accordance Front back into the government would suffice, though it would probably help with some of them - things are just much deeper than shuffling the cabinet). As for Iran, Gulf leaders and publics have been skeptical about a confrontation for a while now, certainly not favorable towards Iran but inclined towards accommodation rather than conflict, and it's not clear what would have changed their minds.
So I don't expect much new out of tomorrow's meetings in Kuwait, especially if Rice follows through on her announced intention of snubbing her Iranian counterpart. Most likely, we'll see the ritual of mutual accusations between Iran and the US, a few new vague promises for the sake of appearances, and everyone continuing to wait out the Bush administration.
(NOTE: last paragraph updated after I got home; plus I see that the Newshoggers already got here anyway.)