In early 2011 Iraq’s government was preparing to host the Arab League Summit in Baghdad. It was also asked to join the Gulf Cooperation Council. Both would be important events to show that after years of wars, sanctions and civil strife, Iraq was back on the regional map. Instead, the summit was delayed and Iraq’s membership in the Council was rejected due to its stance on the unrest in Bahrain. It seems like some in the Arab world were not yet ready for the new Iraq.
In February 2011, Iraq found itself caught up in the unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. In that month, Libya was suspended from the Arab League for its suppression of rebels. That meant Iraq moved into a temporary leadership position, with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari becoming the acting head of the League. He then went to a meeting in Paris, France where he said that Iraq supported the no fly zones in Libya because they worked in Iraq in the 1990s. Zebari, being a Kurd, noted that the no fly zones in Iraq helped protect Kurdistan from Saddam during that period. He also stated that Iraq could be a model for democracy in the Arab world as several autocratic governments were being overthrown. These were important events, because they marked the first time that Iraq was involved in regional politics since the 2003 American invasion.
These all appeared to be positive signs for Iraq as it was going to host the next Arab League Summit. Originally the conference was scheduled for March 23, but then it was pushed back to March 29, and then May 10, because of the protests and fighting going on in the Middle East and North Africa. Baghdad was excited to host the event because it was hoping that it would mark Iraq’s return to regional politics. The last time Iraq hosted a summit was in 1990. In anticipation of the event, the government began renovating a former Saddam Republican Palace, the Baghdad International Airport, villas, hotels, and roads in the capital. It ended up spending around $450 million.
Everything seemed to be going fine until March. That was when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deployed troops to member state Bahrain to suppress demonstrations there organized by the country’s Shiites. While the Iraqi government did not make any official announcements about it, some of its leaders did. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr both issued statements condemning the actions of the GCC. The Shiite religious establishment in Najaf refused to meet with Bahrain’s counsel to Iraq. On March 16, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that the Saudi and United Arab Emirates' military forces in Bahrain could lead to sectarian violence in that country. The next day, the Iraqi parliament held a debate on how they should respond to Bahrain. They discussed whether Baghdad should try to mediate, support the protesters, kick out Bahrain’s ambassador, or end diplomatic relations. On March 17, Speaker of Parliament Osama Nujafi stated that parliament should take 10 days off in support of Bahrain. Maliki would later say that the GCC’s actions were disrupting the region, and called Saudi Arabia and Bahrain “cowardly tyrannies.” There were also marches in several Iraqi cities in support of Bahraini demonstrators. Those comments angered the Saudi King Abdullah who already disliked Maliki and Shiite rule in Iraq. The Gulf Sates also responded by claiming that Iraq was working at the behest of Iran, whom they said was inciting the Shiites in Bahrain and threatening the region. Iraq and the GCC found themselves caught in a war of words that would only escalate.
Despite these problems, parliament’s foreign relations committee told the press on March 23 that Iraq had been invited to join the GCC. A source in the prime minister’s office said that Iraq would became a member, but only if the organization agreed not to interfere in its internal affairs. Baghdad also refused to join the GCC’s Island Shield security forces, which was used to intervene in Bahrain. Still, this seemed like another good sign for Baghdad. Despite the on going disputes in the Persian Gulf, Iraq had another opportunity to become part of Middle Eastern affairs.
The euphoria of the announcement didn’t last long. That same day, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa sent a Twitter message saying that the GCC wanted the Baghdad summit to be canceled. The League at first denied that it received any such request, but then its Deputy Secretary General said that the United Arab Emirates ambassador didn’t want the summit to happen because of Iraq’s comments about Bahrain. Egypt came to the defense of Iraq, saying that the meeting should still happen no matter what. The United States made similar comments. The six member GCC were obviously upset about what some of Iraq’s leaders had to say about the situation in Bahrain, and were going to hold the Arab League summit hostage as a result.
On April 20, the Arab League agreed to another delay because of pressure from the GCC. The League announced that the Baghdad summit was now set for March 2012, with the protests and fighting given as the reason for the postponement. The GCC was more blatant, when Bahrain’s foreign minister continued to remind the press that the Gulf States did not want the conference to happen at all because of what it saw as Iraq’s interference in its internal affairs. The Arab League ministers were going to meet again to try to finalize the summit date, but that was put off because of the Gulf countries. Iraq complained about the cancellation, but could do nothing about it.
The next month, the GCC announced that it was rejecting Iraq’s bid to join. The reason given was Iraq’s inappropriate policies in the Gulf. That was of course, a thinly veiled reference to Bahrain. Since the GCC had put off the Arab League summit because of its anger with Baghdad, it was no surprise that they would not allow Iraq to join.
Iraq was hoping that the Arab summit and the Gulf Cooperation Council invitation would usher in its return to regional affairs. It had been an outcast since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, and the U.S. invasion, and subsequent Shiite rule did not help with that isolation. Time had passed however, and Iraq felt like it would finally be re-accepted into the Middle East. It spent millions on preparing for the conference, and was elated that the GCC asked it to join. Events in Bahrain undermined all of those plans, as the Gulf States took Iraqi leaders’ comments to be pro-Shiite and pro-Iranian, two bogeymen for the region. By 2012 events may be dramatically different. Bahrain may not be an issue, the GCC could be in a forgiving mood, and the Baghdad meet could finally take place. Only time will tell if Iraq will finally regain its once prominent position in the Arab world as a result.
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