Since the U.S. invasion, Iraq has been one of the black sheep of the Arab world. The government was not only installed under the aegis of the U.S., but it was Shiite and Kurdish led in a Sunni Arab world. Add to that a series of terrorist attacks against the diplomats of neighboring countries, and one can see why Iraq had few ties to the Gulf region and the rest of the Middle East. That’s why it was no minor event when Arab states began forgiving Iraq’s debt and announcing a new range of diplomatic relationships during the summer of 2008.
In the last few months a number of Arab governments have begun opening up towards Iraq. Kuwait was the latest to announce that it was naming an ambassador to Iraq in mid-July 2008. Kuwait originally closed its Iraqi embassy when Saddam invaded in1990. In 2003 it was re-opened, but only with a charge d’affaires. At the beginning of the month, Jordan announced that it would be sending an ambassador to Baghdad as well. At the same time, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) canceled the $7 billion that Iraq owed it, and said it too was going to send an ambassador soon. These last two announcements came after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to those countries. In early June Bahrain also said that it was going to open an embassy and send an ambassador. Saudi Arabia promised one back in September 2007, but hasn’t sent one yet.
One of the major reasons why so many of Iraq’s neighbors have not had full diplomatic relations was that insurgents attacked them. In 2003 the Jordanian embassy was bombed in Baghdad by Al Qaeda in Iraq, one of its first large-scale terrorist acts in the country. The UAE had one of its diplomats kidnapped around the same time. Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco have had staff members killed, wounded or kidnapped as well. The lack of security is still a major concern for many countries.
A larger and more important issue is that the Arab, and most of the Muslim world, is run by Sunnis. Iraq is not only run by Shiites, but also has a powerful Kurdish element as well in the ruling coalition. Many of Iraq’s neighbors believe that Maliki’s government is controlled by Iran, another Shiite led regime that they see as one of the main destabilizing forces in the region. In turn, some of Iraq's Shiite politicians are hostile towards the Arab states for not helping them during Saddam’s rule.
Relations are not perfect between Iraq and its neighbors, but the recent changes are significant. Iraq still owes Kuwait $15 billion. The main Gulf state, Saudi Arabia, still has no ambassador, and Iraq owes them $15 billion as well. What is more important is that Arab countries are finally coming to accept Iraq’s government. Before, Baghdad only had two major friends, the U.S. and Iran. Many of Iraq’s leaders have long standing ties with Iran because Tehran took them in and supported them during the Saddam years. The lack of relations with the rest of the Middle East after the U.S. invasion meant Baghdad could only look towards Iran in the region. Perhaps now Iran’s influence can eventually be countered if Iraq becomes more integrated into the Middle East.
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