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West Asia on toes

Washington, Jan. 30: On the eve of war two years ago, President George W. Bush said a democratic regime in Iraq 'would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example for other nations in the region'. Since then, there have been elections in Afghanistan and among the Palestinians that, along with the prospect of self-rule in Iraq, have stirred ripples of reform and hope in parts of West Asia.

But today, as Iraqis voted in their first modern election, the war in Iraq is also transforming West Asia and its relations with the US in directions the Bush administration might not have expected.

Even many of the region's sceptics about the war say Iraq might, in the end, build a relatively stable democracy. But some of America's most steadfast allies, knowing how shaky their own hold on power is, fear that the Iraqi insurgency may encourage violent anti-government dissidents or Islamic militants in their own countries.

Among many ordinary Arabs, moreover, Iraq's example also has been more alarming than inspiring. Whatever hopes these citizens have for democracy, they have started to wonder if Iraq has paid a high price to get there by first descending into violence, sectarian strife and greater susceptibility to those who preach hatred of the US.

Two questions are on their minds: Even if democracy takes root and grows in Iraq, will a more stable West Asia follow' And if civil war consumes Iraq, how quickly will instability engulf its neighbours'

Beyond the general concern about instability is a shared concern in Sunni-ruled countries ' Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf ' that the greatest beneficiary of the war so far has been not Iraq, but Shia-dominated Iran. Empowering Iraq's Shia majority, they fear, will embolden Shias elsewhere to challenge their own ruling Sunni classes.

Jordan's ruler, King Abdullah II, travelled to Washington recently to express the fears of the region's Sunni majority that an arc of Shia influence could soon extend from Iran through Iraq to Iran's ally Syria and to Syria's puppet, Lebanon. Bush administration officials have been pleading with Arab leaders not to overreact to such fears; a senior state department official dismissed the king's comments recently as 'racist anti-Shia paranoia'.

Iran has also been making a big investment of resources in the social welfare, religious and political institutions of Iraq's Shias. 'There is only one country that is really doing nation-building in Iraq, and it isn't the United States,' said an Arab diplomat sardonically. 'It's Iran.'

In the long run, the largest challenge for the US will be to work with its historic allies ' Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia especially, and other Persian Gulf states ' to respond to the changes in Iraq by nurturing their own reforms. But it is not at all clear that this will happen, as the problems ahead of the winners in today's election and the recent election among the Palestinians demonstrate.

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