By Lin Noueihed - Analysis
DUBAI (Reuters) - Gulf Arab pledges to revive high-level diplomatic ties with Iraq reflect a growing awareness that only engagement with the Shi‘ite-led government can counter the spreading influence of Shi‘ite Muslim Iran.
Sunni Arab governments who once funded Iraq’s 1980-1988 war against Iran have held back from establishing top diplomatic ties with Baghdad since the U.S.-led war toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, citing security concerns and extensive Iranian sway.
No Arab ambassador has been stationed in Iraq since Egypt’s envoy was kidnapped and killed shortly after arriving in 2005.
But in a step toward easing Iraq’s diplomatic isolation, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan on Thursday became the first Gulf Arab foreign minister to visit Iraq since the war.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have all pledged to reopen their embassies and appoint ambassadors to Baghdad amid U.S. pressure to shore up the Iraqi government.
No ambassadors have yet been named and Gulf Arab countries have dragged their feet on promises of debt relief, but analysts say they realize they must play a more active role in Iraq if they are to swing the political balance back in their direction.
“There is a Gulf Arab assessment that the government has not done enough on political reconciliation, on disarming militias and on bringing back Sunni elements to the ruling structure,” said Christian Koch, Director of International Studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.
“At the same time, there is a recognition that the Gulf Arab countries have a role to play in Iraq and that by not being at the table they are leaving it all to the Iranians.”
Sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shi‘ite Arabs threatened to erupt into civil war in 2006, prompting the United States to increase its troop presence in a strategic rethink and enflaming public opinion in some Sunni Arab countries.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have said they want to see the government of Nuri al-Maliki engage in more political reconciliation with the Sunni Arab minority, which naturally looks to the surrounding Sunni Arab neighborhood for support.
Since becoming prime minister in May 2006, Maliki has faced criticism from Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs that he has promoted the interests of majority Shi‘ites ahead of others.
But he has also won praise for cracking down on Shi‘ite militias in Baghdad and the southern oil city of Basra and the government has begun releasing Sunni Arab prisoners under a new amnesty law, going some way to easing Gulf Arab concerns.
“For all the reservations on Maliki, things are moving forward in Iraq. Also, Sunni Arabs are beginning to engage in a more normal way... rallying against al Qaeda... while some want to enter the political mainstream,” said Dubai-based political analyst Neil Partrick.
“They are not naive enough to think that the Maliki government has made a 180 degree change, but they recognize that there has been progress.”
Yet beyond promises to reopen embassies and vague pledges to consider debt relief, there has been little tangible progress.
Iraqi and U.S. politicians piled pressure on Gulf Arabs at a conference in Stockholm last month to forgive some $60 billion in Iraqi debt so it can focus its resources on reconstruction.
But Iraq’s biggest creditors Kuwait and Saudi Arabia did not send top officials to the meeting, signaling scant intention to move forward on debt relief.
Bahrain said on Sunday it had found a location for its Baghdad embassy and would soon name an envoy. The UAE promised to name its ambassador within days of Sheikh Abdullah’s visit, but Gulf sources say an ambassador will not arrive for months.
Gulf political sources said the UAE was more likely to act quickly on its pledges than other Arab states, as it has already been quietly providing humanitarian aid in Iraq, mediating on hostage releases and forging reconciliation with Sunni Arabs.
“From the UAE, there seems to be a genuine desire to reopen the embassy which had been functioning until two years ago. The fact that Sheikh Abdullah actually went there puts the UAE’s interest in a different category to the others,” Partrick said.
“They are not prisoners, like Kuwait, to political sensitivities over Iraq... Nor is their situation like that of Saudi Arabia, which has not had an embassy since 2003.”
Saudi Arabia, which considers itself the leading representative of mainstream Sunni Islam, still finds it hard to stomach close ties with Maliki’s Shi‘ite-led government.
Reviving ties with Iraq is sensitive topic for Kuwait, where nationals bitterly remember Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion and remain wary of their larger’s neighbor’s ambitions.
Lingering reservations mean Gulf Arab states are likely to proceed cautiously over Iraq, but even these tentative steps are more than just an empty gesture to Washington.
“If it had been simply a matter of U.S. pressure, these steps would have been taken much earlier,” Koch said.
“There is a recognition that Iraqi security has a direct impact on Gulf security and the current decisions are being made with these national interests in mind.”
Editing by Samia Nakhoul