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Arab leaders view Iraq's new government with skepticism

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt -- Even as they officially welcome Iraq's new government, Arab leaders have made clear they are deeply skeptical about the country's path.

The tepid praise from Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia has been laced with worry about Iran's influence, fear of civil war in Iraq, and an underlying distaste at seeing Shi'ite Muslims control one of the Mideast's biggest nations.

``Now we have a government, and, as I have said, we do support that," the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, said after Iraq's government took power last weekend. ``But again, how are we going to help Iraq get back to being one country, one diverse society living together in unity? This has been destroyed."

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister echoed those words, saying that while his government welcomed the new Iraqi government, ``We hope [they] will be able to stop this [violence and chaos]." Kuwait's emir added pointedly that Iraqis should now work at ``closing their ranks and using their capabilities to build Iraq."

Arab countries' support of Iraq is considered crucial because the country needs both financial help and diplomatic help from its neighbors to solidify its own government.

The skepticism toward Iraq's new government comes in part because Arab leaders -- who are largely Sunni Muslims -- live with an abiding fear of the example set by the Shi'ite theocracy that has ruled neighboring Iran since the overthrow of the Shah 27 years ago.

They worry that Iran is now heavily influencing Iraq's new Shi'ite ruling elite and that the growing Shi'ite-Sunni tensions inside Iraq might spill over onto the region. Most Arab countries are ruled by Sunnis but some have sizable Shi'ite minorities.

Three of the region's more moderate leaders -- key US allies -- have even gone on record about their anxiety, a rare event among leaders who usually make their points quietly and obliquely.

Jordan's King Abdullah II last year warned that Iran wants to create ``a Shi'ite crescent" that would disrupt the balance of power in the region; the Saudi foreign minister gave similar warnings.

The Saudi daily al-Watan may have encapsulated Arab skepticism best.

``A difficult birth doesn't mean the newborn will live," the paper said in a recent editorial. ``And it doesn't mean it will die instantly."

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