Leading article: At risk from the flames that are engulfing Iraq

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The Independent Online

President Bush is tacking a rather unusual destination on to his two-day sojourn in Latvia for the Nato summit. He is flying to Jordan to meet the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and others may be on the guest list. The hope is that the scene could be set for some grand diplomacy at a time when grand diplomacy is sorely needed.

The choice of Jordan makes two points about the Bush administration's failures in the Middle East. The first is that the US now considers Iraq too dangerous for Mr Bush to risk even a fleeting visit. At the weekend, the Iraqi president had to postpone a trip to Iran because of security concerns. There can be no question of the US President being exposed to similar risks.

The second is that, at present, Jordan is probably the only country in the immediate region where a US president will be welcome and where it is relatively safe for him to stay. Security concerns, however, are crowding in. King Abdullah warned yesterday that without urgent international action no fewer than three civil wars could break out on Jordan's doorstep.

It is not easy to gainsay the King's pessimism. Lebanon has just witnessed its second high-profile assassination in two years. The government is disintegrating. This summer Israel and Hizbollah waged war on its territory. Pro- and anti-Syrian factions are at loggerheads. One more killing could tip it into war.

Iraq, for its part, looks already beyond the point of no return. The insurgency has fragmented as local militias fight each other for ascendancy. Corruption and bootlegged oil sustain the warring factions. The police, newly armed and trained by the invaders, have reverted to their earlier tribal and religious loyalties. It is questionable how much power, if any, the heavily protected central government exerts.

The third area of concern is the one source of better news. A ceasefire has just been agreed in Gaza, which may be extended to the West Bank. Whether it will hold, is another matter. With a weak government in Israel, a still more fragile one in Lebanon and Syria sending conflicting signals about its intentions, the landscape even here is not greatly consoling. It is a cheap observation, but telling. Until Israel and the Palestinians began talking to each other secretly in Oslo, Jordan was the regional power broker: a relatively agreeable haven in a dangerous neighbourhood. The present King's father, King Hussein, had perfected the diplomatic balancing act. He constituted the pivotal regional power.

Jordan fulfils few of President Bush's one-time ambitions for his greater Middle East. It is not by any manner of means a democracy; civil rights are restricted. It is one of the countries that obliged Washington by receiving prisoners under the programme of "extraordinary rendition". At times like these, however, Jordan is useful: geographically central, politically stable, cosmopolitan in its make-up, it is unique.

Jordan's return to the international stage is one illustration of how regional diplomacy is going back to the future. Another is the revived focus on the Palestinians, described by King Abdullah as "the core" that links all the other disputes. There are rumours that while in Amman, Mr Bush will meet, as well as Mr al-Maliki, the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. Might there also be a representative from Syria. Dare one speculate, even, an envoy from Iran?

The flames from Iraq must be prevented from consuming the Middle East as a whole. It is a time for grand designs to be broached and all options to be explored. If there is to be any prospect of a solution anchored in the region, Jordan is the obvious place to start.