This editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:
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After years of rooting for the United States to fail in Iraq, Iran and Syria are now afraid of precisely that outcome. There are signs that Damascus and Tehran, as well as Iraq's four other neighbors, are no longer willing to leave Iraq to its fate. They're worried that Iraq is Lebanon redux: sectarian terrain ripe for a new Middle East proxy war.
On the eastern border stands Iran, whose sweeping influence in southern Iraq and backing of Shiite militias has made even some moderate Iraqi Shiites nervous. But Tehran may have over-reached in Iraq. Saudi Arabia is worried about Iranian ascendance and the worsening violence in Iraq. It fears the Bush administration is militarily overstretched and diplomatically hobbled by its refusal to engage Tehran. So Saudi Arabia has launched its own diplomatic offensive to try to counter Shiite power and protect Iraqi Sunnis.
Turkey is increasingly fearful Kurdistan will rise as a de facto independent state if Iraq descends into chaos. Jordan, Kuwait and Syria worry about the economic effect of an Iraqi civil war and an overwhelming stream of Iraqi refugees. In fact, the neighbors are so worried about being sucked into an Iraqi abyss that even Iranian and Syrian officials are now worried about a premature U.S. troop withdrawal that could leave Iraq in chaos. And Iraqi officials want neighborly help but not outsider meddling.
Baghdad finally got Washington's blessing to invite all six neighbors for talks on March 10. Informal discussions among the neighbors are continuing. This is encouraging. Iran and Saudi Arabia could have an effect on the Iraqi sectarian violence by halting the flow of money, arms and fighters; cracking down on inflammatory speech and fatwas, and urging their co-religionists in Iraq to strive for a political settlement.
The United States should encourage joint economic ventures between Iraq and its neighbors - including Iran and Syria. However much the Bush administration might dislike those regimes, prosperity is the best insurance against instability. Restarting the oil pipeline to Syria, for example, would give Damascus a stake in Iraq's success and less motivation to play the spoiler. And all of the neighbors must be encouraged to invest heavily in the new Iraq.
It goes without saying that what all of Iraq's neighbors want most is an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. What all fear most is a U.S. war with Iran. It would be nice to divorce Iraq's woes from those broader conflicts, but the reality of the Middle East is that progress on all of these issues is fiendishly interlinked. Still, the need to keep Iraq from going over the precipice should motivate the United States and Iraq's neighbors to strive harder for peace.
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