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The books Americans are reading - about "God, globalization and the place of Americans in this world," according to the Economist - may explain Washington's agreement to participate in a conference with Iraq's neighbors, scheduled to take place in 10 days. In terms of its position in the Middle East, Washington has something to worry about. It has a powerful competitor rising in this region - Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is racing to embrace everyone the U.S. is slamming.

In early February, Putin met with Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's former foreign minister who is now supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei's adviser. According to reports from Iran, Velayati received Russian assurances that no debilitating international sanctions would be imposed on Tehran. Mostly, however, they talked about the future of Iraq.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Khaled Meshal and promised him that Moscow would do everything in its power to grant the Palestinian unity government international recognition. Two weeks earlier, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas received similar treatment.

Russia nurtures a special relationship with Damascus that has enabled it to influence Bashar Assad's decision-making process for years. But not only America's rivals are being adopted by Russia. In Saudi Arabia, Assad's new rival, Putin enjoyed a warm welcome from King Abdullah and came away with a few petroleum drilling rights.

Russia is positioning itself in the Middle East in anticipation of the moment the United States begins its Iraq pullout. At the Munich Conference on Security Policy in February, Putin accused the U.S. of aspiring to dominate the world. Meanwhile, Putin has no intention to stay in his corner. It therefore appears that the American willingness to participate in a conference with Syria and Iran is related to the Russian regional involvement and the threat to America's standing. Washington has made it clear that during this conference, no meetings will be scheduled with Iranian and Syrian representatives, but it will be impossible to avoid preliminary talks between the American ambassador in Iraq and senior Iranian representatives if the conference is to have results. The same applies to Syria.

Therefore, even if Washington insists there is no connection between the talks on the Iranian nuclear program and the situation in Iraq, it will be hard-pressed to find an audience for its claims. It seems that a solution for Iraq has been becoming more urgent than the nuclear issue - especially following Britain's announcement that it was withdrawing another 1,600 soldiers, and plans by other allies to leave the U.S. on its own.