CAIRO -- On his first major trip in office, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq received a red-carpet welcome from his Persian Gulf neighbors, hugged and dined by a king, emirs, and sheiks. But behind the scenes, the leaders made clear they will help his new government only if he takes additional steps to reach out to Iraqi Sunnis.
The talks this week with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates ``were courteous but not warm," said one delegate in Maliki's entourage.
In particular, some Arab leaders urged Maliki to free all Sunni Arabs who are in detention in Iraq regardless of their links to the Sunni-led insurgency, said the delegate, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
``At some points [in the talks], they made it clear that Arab neighbors will not help his government until Sunnis have a larger say in running Iraq's affairs," said the delegate.
The tension -- part of widespread Sunni-Shi'ite distrust across the Middle East -- is troubling because the United States has hoped for regional support for Iraq from powerful and affluent countries like Saudi Arabia, both in terms of providing aid and also political support.
The United States had pushed for the trip with the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, first visiting Saudi Arabia and urging its leaders to invite Maliki there.
Back in Baghdad yesterday, Maliki would say only that the talks involved political, trade, and security issues. ``There were good ideas based on real cooperation to help Iraq in confronting the challenge of terrorism," he said.
The Gulf nations are dominated by Sunni governments that are leery of Shi'ite and Kurdish dominance of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
For his part, Maliki asked Arab countries to stop any support for the insurgency, and instead back his national reconciliation plan designed to reach out to Sunni Arabs in Iraq. The plan offers amnesty to those who were not involved in terrorism, war crimes, or crimes against humanity, and who agree to renounce violence -- but is not the widespread amnesty the Arab leaders sought.
Maliki also had tough words on the trip, accusing some of Iraq's neighbors of allowing bogus companies to operate as a way to send money to the insurgents.
And he warned that losing the fight against terrorism would mean the end of Iraq, suggesting that Arab support to the insurgents could lead to the country's disintegration.
Sunni Arabs currently serve as speaker of parliament and hold a vice presidency and key posts, including the defense and justice ministries. But there are still widespread points of tension, especially the issue of who should be given amnesty.