Iran and Syria want to be seen as a stabilising force in Iraq, in contrast to the failure of the US, but there is little they can do
Jonathan Steele in Irbil, northern Iraq
Friday November 24, 2006
"Never have there been so many competing visions of the Middle East. Viewed from Israel, the central issue is an axis of evil that starts in Iran, passes through Syria (perceived as Tehran's client number one) and moves on to the secondary clients, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
Seen from Baghdad, Iran and Syria assume different roles. They are powerful neighbours who hold the keys to the country's security.
In Kurdistan, Iraq's uniquely stable northern region, the struggle is viewed as one between modernisers who believe in a democratic "new Iraq", and traditionalists who held power and privilege during Saddam Hussein's long regime and want revenge for his ousting.
Finally there are those, such as King Abdullah of Jordan, who perceive the issue as a battle between a newly awakened Shia minority against centuries of Sunni dominance throughout the region.
The Bush administration is now split between advocates of these competing visions. Neocons who share the Israeli and Kurdish view and once believed the US could impose democracy on Iraq, both for its own sake but also to put pressure on the authoritarian regimes in Iran and Syria, are in retreat.
Sectarian civil war and the virtual collapse of law and order in Iraq, coupled with the nationalist insurgency's unrelenting attrition of American soldiers' lives, have "trapped" the US in Iraq, in the words of Kofi Annan this week. During the Vietnam war the word was "quagmire", but the message is the same. American voters are frustrated and pessimistic. Several US columnists who supported the invasion now favour prompt withdrawal.
As a result, realists such as James Baker are gaining the upper hand. They want to bring Iraq's neighbours into the picture and move the focus of US policy from regime change to regional stability, to hand the problem to Iraq's neighbours then let the US pull back, keeping bases but no longer supplying frontline troops.
As US influence wanes, neither Tehran nor Damascus can fill the void. Iraq has become a calamity that outsiders can only watch in horror. If cure there is, Iraqis will have to find it on their own."