Cheney will Ask Mubarak for Egyptian Troops for Iraq: al-Zaman
Will Cairo counter Tehran?
Vice President Richard Bruce Cheney will meet Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday. Al-Zaman (“The Times of Baghdad”) says that its sources in Cairo tell it that Cheney will ask that Egypt be ready to send troops to Iraq if the situation there calls for it.
There has been no official acknowledgment of any such talks on either side, so it is a little speculative. But I think the reports are at least plausible, and are worth thinking about seriously.
Iraqi politicians have repeatedly said that they might accept troops from other Muslim countries, but not from any direct neighbors. Egypt might therefore in principle be acceptable to them. The problem is that the government of Iraq is dominated by Shiites and Kurds, who are fighting Sunni Arabs. The Egyptians are Sunni Arabs, and will be suspected in Baghdad of sympathizing with the guerrilla movement. Still, if it were a matter of avoiding civil war or being taken out and shot by Zarqawi, perhaps the Shiite and Kurdish leaders could accept Egyptian troops out of desperation.
Mubarak would certainly be happy to crack down on Muslim radicals such as the Zarqawi group, just as he has virtually destroyed the al-Jihad al-Islami and the al-Gama’ah al-Islamiyah in Egypt itself.
The wording of the Al-Zaman article suggests that Cheney is angling with Mubarak for a contingency plan, in case things go very badly indeed when the US withdraws its troops. In other words, the Bush administration is going on hands and knees to Cairo because it is very, very desperate and very, very worried.
Al-Zaman says that Cheney will also talk to Saudi Arabia about the issue. Since Saudi Arabia is a neighbor, and anyway doesn’t have much of an army, presumably Cheney would be asking Riyadh to fund the Egyptian/ Arab peacekeeping force in Iraq. Saudi Arabia had played a similar role in funding the Syrian peacekeepers in Lebanon in the 1970s and after.
Cheney will also seek greater support in the Arab world for the new Iraqi government, which will begin being formed as soon as the final results of the December 15 elections are announced. The previous Iraqi government had sometimes tense relations with the Arab League. Arab nationalist governments had tilted toward Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime and had viewed the rise of a Shiite-Kurdish government in Baghdad, established by an American military intervention and with implicit Iranian support, with sullen suspicion.
Mubarak may say “no.” If he did show a willingness to get involved, what would impel it?
1. The Egyptian regime has been afraid of Iranian-inspired Muslim radicalism ever since the 1979 revolution. The opportunity to attempt to counter Iranian influence in Arab Iraq could seem attractive to the Egyptian military, and also could strike them as a form of self-defense. It is often forgotten that Muqtada al-Sadr’s Kufa is not that far from Egypt’s Asyut, and although Shiites are viewed as heretics by most Egyptians, Muslim radical ideas can jump across the sectarian divide.
2. Egypt receives $2 billion a year in US aid. Although that aid helps US corporations more than Egyptians, since it must be spent in the US, it is a prop for the regime. The opportunity to receive further aid from the US and Saudi Arabia for a role in Iraq could seem to the military regime in Cairo too good to pass up. Significantly, al-Hayat reports that Cheney is in charge of negotiating a free trade deal between Egypt and the United States, which would open the US market unrestrictedly to Egyptian exports and vice versa. Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco already have such an arrangement.
3. If the US dumps the Iraq mess on the United Nations, and the Egyptian troops could serve under a UN command, the enterprise might be made palatable and legitimate to the Egyptian movers and shakers. That is, establishing order in the Arab nation in the wake of an imperial withdrawal (coded as a defeat) is a task that might appeal to the Egyptian political elite.
4. The Egyptian military has many contacts with the old Baathist elite that is a key player in the guerrilla movement, and might be able to broker an end to the unconventional civil war.
5. The Arab League member states don’t want Iran going nuclear, and the Saudis have spoken publicly on this. An Egyptian military and intelligence presence in Iraq might strengthen Cairo’s ability to monitor the Iranian program and would be a way for the Arabs to pressure Iran over it. The Egyptians want as a quid pro quo for the Americans to pressure Israel to give up its nukes, so as to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone and stop the arms race in the region (which the Israeli Bomb impels).
AP reported on Monday, Jan. 16 from Cairo: ‘Egypt on Monday said it supported using nuclear technology for peaceful purposes but rejected the emergence of a nuclear military power in the region, in its first official reaction to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. “All countries should adhere to their commitments in a way to allow the international community to be sure of the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, as we do not accept the emergence of a nuclear military power,” Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement.’
If the Kurds and the Shiites could be talked into it, a US withdrawal from Iraq in favor of an Arab League peace-keeping force might be the least bad end game for a terrifyingly unstable situation.