Failure in Iraq will unleash sectarian strife and extremism and will be felt first in the Middle East, visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.
Speaking to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce luncheon on the third day of his Middle East tour, Gates exhorted Arab countries to use their influence to dampen the insurgency and encourage political reconciliation in Iraq.
"Whatever disagreements we might have over how we got to this point in Iraq, the consequences of a failed state in Iraq - of chaos there - will adversely impact the security and prosperity of every nation in the Middle East and Gulf region," he said.
He warned that while some who disagree with the war may be cheering for failure in Iraq, "these sentiments are dangerously shortsighted and self-destructive."
The initial effects of failure, he said, will first be felt in Middle East capitals and communities "well before they are felt in Washington or New York."
Gates' speech came in the midst of talks with military and political leaders in the region, where he urged them to do what they can to spur reconciliation efforts in Iraq and involve the Iraqi government more actively in the political discourse in the Middle East.
Gates, who is making his third trip to the region as defense secretary, reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Iraq and to protecting allies in the area - while also alluding to the raging debate between the Democrat-controlled Congress and the Bush administration over bringing an end to the war.
The arguments, he said, probably reflect those going on across the Middle East but do not suggest the U.S. is not determined to keep working with its allies in the region.
That "is a responsibility we will not abandon, a trust we will not break," he said.
Gates also said that Iran and Syria need to become part of the solution by reducing the violence and helping promote reconciliation in Iraq - a key goal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.
U.S. military officials have stepped up their criticism of Iran, saying for the first time this week that Iranians are involved in providing weapons to Afghanistan.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that U.S. forces recently intercepted Iranian-made weapons intended for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, suggesting wider Iranian involvement in the region.
Military officials have said for months that Iranians are supplying weapons and training to insurgents in Iraq.
"We should have no illusions about the nature of this regime - or about their designs for their nuclear program, their intentions for Iraq or their ambitions in the Gulf region," Pace said, referring to Iran.
Iran has been a key topic in meetings Gates had with leaders in Jordan, and on Tuesday he told reporters that he would bring up the issue with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during a meeting Wednesday. He said he wanted to get Mubarak's views on Iran's role in Iraq.
In his speech, which came shortly after he met Mubarak, Gates said Egypt will play a key role in securing Iraq and holding Iran accountable.
"Because of Egypt's unique position - its geography, economy, and demographics - it is unlikely that progress can be made on the most pressing issues of today without Egypt's full engagement, support and leadership," said Gates.
The U.S. and some of its allies have expressed concerns about Iran secretly developing nuclear weapons - a charge Iran denies.
Gates met with Jordan's King Abdullah II Tuesday, and is expected to travel to Israel later this week for meetings with leaders there.
The Iraqis are under growing pressure to move more quickly on political reconciliation so they can temper sectarianism and reduce the violence gripping the country.
The choice of the city of Helsinki is not incidental as the capital of Finland had hosted US-Soviet negotiations on the limitation of nuclear stockpiles in 1969