KUWAIT CITY - The United States and Iran, the two nations with the most at stake in Iraq, pointedly ignored each other yesterday as Iraq's premier unsuccessfully pleaded for immediate financial and diplomatic backing from rich Arab neighbors still leery of Tehran's influence on Baghdad.
A sharp exchange between Saudi and Iranian diplomats underscored the mistrust that has hampered Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's mission to win those specific commitments.
Rice and Iran's foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, did not speak or shake hands as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq said he cannot understand why Arab states have not forgiven Iraq's crushing debts, made new loans, or sent ambassadors to Baghdad.
"We find it difficult to explain why diplomatic exchange [between Iraq and its Middle Eastern neighbors] has not taken place," Maliki told foreign ministers from nearby nations. "Many foreign countries have kept their diplomatic missions in Baghdad and did not make security excuses."
Rice sat diagonally across a large U-shaped table from Mottaki as Maliki spoke at the opening of a meeting of Iraq's neighbors held in Kuwait - the third such meeting in the past year.
A copy of the conference's draft resolution obtained by the Associated Press calls for increased help from Iraq's neighbors in fighting militias and "assistance in solving the issue of Iraqi debts." But Iraq's neighbors have made similar pledges at two previous meetings, with little follow-through. They have also promised to open diplomatic missions in Baghdad, but none has yet done so.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, and Rice said they heard encouraging signals on both the diplomatic and economic fronts, but Arab states offered no specific new promises. "We need to be patient. This is how politics works in this part of the world," Zebari told reporters.
Yesterday's conference was a rare occasion where top diplomats from Iran and the United States were even in the same room. Rice told reporters she did greet Syria's envoy to the session.
The Bush administration blames both Iran and Syria for feeding the insurgency inside Iraq, but considers Iran the far greater problem.
"We would hope that all of Iraq's neighbors would choose to be positive neighbors. I don't think it's any secret that we do not believe that to be the case with all of Iraq's neighbors," Rice said. "The good thing about meetings like this is that it periodically calls people to account."
Rice congratulated the group for agreeing to hold its next session in Baghdad, where violence has declined in the past year.
The United States was midwife to Iraq's Shi'ite-led democratic government, and Washington remains Maliki's greatest patron. He is trying to balance that relationship with the complex one he and his government maintain with Iran, Washington's principal adversary in the Middle East.
The Sunni Arab neighbors Maliki is courting, meanwhile, have a strong stake in keeping Iraq - which is majority Shi'ite - firmly in the Arab orbit as a buffer against expanding influence by Iran, the world's largest Shi'ite nation. But they are still leery of Maliki's government and the deep Iranian ties of its main coalition members.
Asked about US accusations that Iran supports Shi'ite militias in Iraq, Mottaki said the problem was foreign troops and called on Washington to withdraw its forces from Iraq. "The main players on the Iraqi playground are the foreign forces. They insist on their policies there, although they are failed policies," he said.