There goes Bush's "Greater Middle East Initiative"

Iraq's neighbors are alarmed by the regional instability arising from the war.

Published September 17, 2004 12:54PM (EDT)

The corrosive impact of the Iraq crisis in almost all areas of international relations, as well as on Iraq's long-suffering civilians, was dramatically demonstrated yesterday by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's blunt declaration that last year's war was illegal.

The recent spat between the U.S. and Iraq's northern neighbor Turkey is a case in point. Since the war officially ended, Turkey has fretted about Iraq's possible fragmentation, Kurdish separatism and the safety of Iraq's ethnic Turk minority.

When U.S. forces attacked the city of Tal Afar, home to many Turkomen, last week, Ankara finally drew the line. Unless they called a "total stop" to the fighting there, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said, Turkey would suspend all cooperation, closing the vital supply lines to northern Iraq. Thus has a "liberated" Iraq achieved by default something that Saddam Hussein never could: an open if temporary rupture between the U.S. and a key Muslim ally that is now increasingly identifying with the European Union.

Turkey's concern about regional stability is shared by Iraq's other neighbors. Jordan and Syria have good cause for alarm, and according to a new study by the Chatham House think tank in London, full-scale civil war in Iraq would draw in Saudi Arabia in support of the Sunni minority.

The war has had a deeply destabilizing impact on the House of Saud. It has further strained ties with the U.S. already badly frayed by 9/11. Whereas in the past, Saudi jihadis, principally from al-Qaida, have gone abroad to pursue their terrorist aims, the U.S. occupation of Iraq has drawn them to a new base, awash with arms, from which to attack Western interests in Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday another Briton fell victim to a barely contained internal breakdown, fatally shot in Riyadh. "In all likelihood, Saudi Arabia will be contaminated with jihadis in the same way as Afghanistan," the study says. "Osama bin Laden's ideological children are returning to his homeland."

One thing at stake is the West's oil supply. If the Iraq war really was about securing the Middle East oil fields, then George W. Bush may be well on the way to achieving the exact opposite.

Another ostensibly unsettling consequence is that Iran may emerge stronger, in regional terms -- another potential case of the U.S. shooting itself in the foot. Iranian economic, cultural and political influence with Iraq's Shiite majority is growing. An isolated Syria is ever more dependent on Iranian goodwill. And the U.S. is so bogged down militarily that, it is argued, the chances of aggression against Tehran are now diminishing. For these reasons Iran's dominant conservatives hope the U.S. will agree to unconditional dialogue. However, civil war in Iraq could just as easily suck them in against the U.S. on the side of the Shiites.

In this unpredictable regional evolution can be heard the death knell for Bush's "Greater Middle East Initiative" to deliver democracy to all the Arabs. And his infamous doctrine of preemptive strikes, preventive war and forcible regime change also seems to be dying in the aftermath of its first application in Iraq.

By Simon Tisdall

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