Rice called the meeting an "opportunity to signal strong support" for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but many of Iraq's neighbors see the Maliki government as part of the problem. Although al-Maliki came to office through democratic elections and is supported by Washington, Arab governments in Sunni Muslim countries see the Shi'ite prime minister as an ally of Iran who is helping Tehran extend its influence in Iraq. "Al-Maliki is not representing all of Iraq's people," an Arab diplomat told TIME on the sidelines of the conference. "He is too Iranian. He's serving Iran's interests."
Arab officials complain that al-Maliki has dragged his feet on opening up the government to Iraqis who served in Saddam Hussein's regime, and that the manner in which the former dictator was executed last December was a deliberate provocation of the Sunnis. They say that al-Maliki has done little to dismantle Shi'ite militias such as the Mahdi Army, and suspect that he arranged for its leader, Moqtada Al-Sadr, to take refuge in Iran to escape arrest. Arab officials see the recent dismissal of some officers from the Iraqi armed forces as a purge orchestrated by al-Maliki because they were too aggressive in fighting the Mahdi Army.
Arab governments have welcomed the Sharm el-Sheikh conference as an opportunity to have their voices heard on the Iraq crisis. But apart from forgiving some loans dating from Saddam Hussein's rule, they have been reluctant to take further steps, such as giving strong political backing to al-Maliki's government, using their influence with Iraqi Sunni leaders to halt the insurgency and, in the case of Syria, to stem the flow of insurgents from Syria into Iraq.
Despite some recent government steps toward national reconciliation, such as introducing (although not yet passing) legislation to share oil revenues equitably among Iraq's ethnic regions, Arab leaders remain to be convinced that al-Maliki will follow through. Saudi Arabia recently announced a willingness to write off billions in Iraqi debts, but in signs of Riyadh's displeasure, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud called the U.S. presence in Iraq "illegitimate," and refused to receive al-Maliki in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal told the conference that the Kingdom wants to see "true national reconciliation" and "the dissolving of the militias."
Some Arab leaders fear that national reconciliation efforts may be too little, too late. Hisham Youssef, a senior Arab League official, complains that Arab efforts to push reconciliation talks at a 2004 Iraq conference in Sharm el-Sheikh were largely ignored, and now the spread of sectarian killings has made peace between Sunnis and Shi'ites more difficult. "There are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people who are now looking for revenge," he says.
Neighborly cooperation is further complicated by a host of side issues. The Syrian regime is doing less than it could to hinder Iraqi insurgents using Syria as a logistical base, so long as the U.S. continues to squeeze Syria on other fronts. Similarly, Iran, facing a U.S. campaign to strengthen U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program, sees Iraq as a venue to pursue its rivalry with the U.S. for regional influence.
And neighboring countries face domestic political constraints on their ability to help stabilize Iraq. In Turkey, where the military last week threatened to intervene in a political crisis over the election of an Islamist president, a senior army official recently warned that the Turkish armed forces should intervene against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. Although all of Iraq's neighbors except Kuwait opposed the invasion of Iraq, many are now deeply worried that growing American domestic opposition to the war will force a precipitous U.S. withdrawal that could exacerbate the chaos.
In his opening address, Maliki thanked Iraq's neighbors for their pledges of support and said he considered the conference a big success for Iraq. But behind the pleasantries, nagging disagreements are a reminder of the long, complicated road ahead before the Iraq crisis is over.