Kaleidoscope Pieces Fall in New Places in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan

The Saudi-Egyptian diplomatic offensive against Iranian influence, quietly backed from Washington, is ambitious and all-encompassing. It extends not only to Syria but also to Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources reveal.


For two years, Saudi rulers have stayed aloof from Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, fearing his influence on their four-million strong Shiite minority just across the border. However, this fear is now surpassed by anxiety lest Maliki falls into Tehran's arms, taking Iraq with him. Riyadh has consequently shifted its policy round and joined forces with Egypt to build a pan-Arab safety net for the Maliki regime.


They have distanced themselves from the bitter years when they accused the Iraqi prime minister of persecuting Iraqi Sunnis. In July 2006, Al-Maliki visited Jeddah, the first Shiite prime minister to visit the Sunni Muslim kingdom. He was received by King Abdullah.


But the following year, the king snubbed him by calling of a second visit at the last minute, put out after hearing that the Shiite prime minister was making trouble for the Sunni-dominated Awakening councils which the Americans had recruited to combat al Qaeda in their regions.


But then, in January, Maliki and his supporters did badly in Iraq's municipal elections. They were beaten by the clerical Shiite parties backed from Tehran.


 


Mubarak offers to arm Lebanese army


 


Since that setback, the Saudis have decided to throw their support behind the Maliki administration. An offer of financial aid to Baghdad has since come from Riyadh in addition to the May 2008 decision of the Gulf Arab states, led by Riyadh, to forgive about $66.5 billion of Iraq's $120.2 billion foreign debt.


Riyadh and Cairo went so far as to urge Syria's president Bashar Assad to improve relations with the Maliki government and meet him halfway in common issues.


In Lebanon, the two Arab powers are not hiding their campaign against the Shiite Hizballah, Iran's foremost arm in the Middle East, or their efforts to reduce its parliamentary representation in the May general election.


Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak is a proactive partner in this campaign.


Tuesday, Feb. 17, he welcomed Lebanese defense minister Elias Murr as his guest in Cairo with an offer to fully support the Lebanese army and supply its weapons. This is the first known instance in modern Middle East history of Egypt publicly undertaking to arm another Arab army.


In another dramatic move, the 82-year old Egyptian president, who rarely travels, flew to Bahrain to demonstrate Cairo's support for King Hamad bin Eisa Al Khalifa against Tehran's claim to parts of Bahrain as Iranian territory. Mubarak placed his army at the Bahraini ruler's disposal should Tehran try to act out on its claim.


This was a rare example of solidarity in the much-fragmented Arab world.


Mubarak's gesture emboldened the Bahrain ruler to close his borders to Iranian passport-holders.


 


Jordan's Abdullah is pulled away from close ties with Assad


 


With regard to the Syrian president, so long as he holds back his response to the Saudi-Egyptian overtures for a detente, he remains in the status of an adversary.


DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources disclose that the two powers accordingly convinced Jordan's King Abdullah to call off Assad's planned visit to Amman next month. They also prevailed on him to put on ice implementation of the security pact signed in July 2008 for Jordanian-Syrian cooperation in combating terror. The Hashemite King is preparing a major government reshuffle to banish the ministers who favored rapprochement with Damascus and the Palestinian Hamas – not least because they could be Trojan horses for Iran's infiltration of his kingdom.


Egyptian and Saudi plans for the Palestinians have descended to specifics.


They hope to have Iran's hard-line protege Khaled Meshaal removed and replaced as chief of the Hamas politburo by his more accommodating deputy, Mussa Abu Marzuk, and the Hamas prime minister of Gaza Ismail Haniya make way from Mahmoud A-Zahar.


Both of these choices are more amenable to diplomacy with Israel and see the advantages of bringing the Gaza Strip under a Palestinian unity administration that would heal Hamas' rift with Mahmoud Abbas' Ramallah-based Fatah.

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