They hope their backing for Baghdad will help stabilise the country and
Improved security, a grudging belief in the credibility of Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki and a desire to counter growing Iranian influence has led Iraqs
Sunni Arab neighbours in recent weeks to increase their diplomatic and economic
support for the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.
Until recently, the Gulf Arab states which include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait,
Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, UAE as well as Jordan and Egypt
have resisted calls by Iraqi and United States officials to engage more with
Baghdad, citing security concerns and a distrust of the countrys government.
While Shia-dominated Iran, by contrast, has had an active embassy in
Baghdad since the US-led invasion in 2003, there has not been a permanent Arab
ambassador stationed in Iraq since Egypts envoy was murdered there in
In the past, theres been a huge concern about the security situation
inside Iraq, said Christian Koch, director of International Studies at the Gulf
Research Centre in Dubai. With the situation becoming a little bit better,
theres also a greater willingness to send ambassadors back to Iraq.
Sectarian fighting between the Shia Arab majority and the Sunni Arab
minority erupted in 2006, and the drop-off in violence has been attributed to
the deployment of 30,000 additional American troops, as well as crackdowns
against armed Shia and Sunni militants by the Iraqi government in the southern
city of Basra, the northern city of Mosul and Baghdads Sadr City
Its hard to overstate the animosity felt toward the government in
Baghdad, said Tony Dodge, a senior fellow for the Middle East at the
International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Gulf states felt [Malikis
government] was at least complicit in the civil war that was raging between the
[Shia] and the Sunni, but as the surge kicked in and the violence went down in
2007, that anger kind of dissipated.
This week, the UAE appointed its new ambassador to Baghdad during a visit
to Abu Dhabi by Maliki.
The country withdrew its top envoy in May 2006 after one of its diplomats
was kidnapped and held for nearly two weeks by Islamist militants.
The UAE also became the first Gulf Arab country to forgive all of Iraqs
debt, cancelling almost seven billion US dollars, including interest owed by
Earlier this month, Jordan appointed its first ambassador to Iraq since the
August 2003 bombing of its embassy in Baghdad, which killed 17 and left 40
Jordans King Abdullah II has announced plans to visit Iraq soon the
first trip by an Arab head of state since Saddam was toppled.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have also promised to send ambassadors to
I suspect that [other Gulf Arab countries] will take similar steps within
the next few months, said Marina Ottaway, the director of the Middle East
programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.
What is striking on the part of these countries is that theyre really trying
to follow a very careful policy of not siding with the US but trying to be the
peacemakers and go-betweens.
This has become easier as leaders in the Gulf Arab states have come to
regard Prime Minister Maliki, a Shia Arab, who took office in May 2006, as his
own man rather than a US or Iranian crony, and as someone who has shunned
Maliki has quietened critics in recent months by going after the Mahdi Army
militia of radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and pushing ahead with a new
amnesty programme for former insurgents the majority being Sunni, a
substantial number of whom have never been charged.
The Iraqi legislature passed the General Amnesty Law in February as part of
Maliki's effort to draw more Sunnis into the political process.
These Arab countries are beginning to realise that Maliki has somewhat of
a spine after all, said Steven A, Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign
Relations in Washington. He started to prove himself first in the operations
[against Sadrs militia] in Basra even if that wasnt totally successful and
then by standing up to the US on the Status of Forces Agreement.
Washington has been trying to negotiate a new agreement that would provide
a legal basis for its troops to remain in the country into next year, after its
United Nations mandate expires.
Bush administration officials had hoped to wrap up talks by the end of the
month, but Iraqi leaders have held off because of numerous disagreements on
various aspects of the deal, including whether to include a timetable for a US
withdrawal. Maliki, who supports the inclusion of a timetable, believes an
interim deal may be the most realistic option.
The more Maliki stands up to the Americans on the issue of the security
agreement, the easier it becomes for Gulf Arab countries to become more
involved, said Ottaway.
While the Maliki government fights off the perception of being too close to
the Americans, it has also had to contend with being viewed as too cosy with
There has not been much faith in Maliki as a credible leader and of course
this is the first time in 500 years that theres been a [Shia] dominated [Arab]
country in the Middle East, said Christopher Pang, the head of the Middle East
and North Africa Programme at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
For this reason, a lot of those Arab states have seen the Maliki government as
beholden to Iranian [Shia] interest.
This perception only intensified in March when Iraq pulled out all the
stops for an elaborate state visit by Iranian president Mahmoud
The image of Ahmadinejad and Maliki strolling hand-in-hand through Baghdad
provided a sharp symbolic statement for two countries which had been bitter
enemies when Saddam Husseins Sunni government was in power.
Political analysts say that Arab states, which once funded Iraqs 1980-88
war against Iran, have become increasingly interested in launching a diplomatic
counter-offensive, with a particular eye toward the outcome of the 2008
Now that [the Arab countries] see theres a chance for Sunni groups to
regroup and gain influence in the elections, they are becoming more involved,
The polls are scheduled for October 1, but analysts caution that
legislators may not be able to pass an electoral law soon enough to allow
preparations for a vote by that date.
The UN special representative to Baghdad, Staffan de Mistura, told the
Associated Press there would be time to hold the local elections before the end
of the year if parliament passed the law this month.
There is hope that the ballot, whenever it is held, will bolster Sunni
Arabs and improve their prospects of doing well in national elections
scheduled for the end of 2009 and their overall participation in Iraqs new
democratic political process.
Analysts note, though, that Sunni Arabs will not be voting as one bloc.
There will be two kinds of Sunni groups vying for power, said Ottaway.
The first group is made up of the old parties those represented in parliament
who have withdrawn from the government but are negotiating with the government
to come back in. They are the current lawmakers.
The second group is made up of members of new organisations that are being
formed like the Awakening Councils and the Sons of Iraq and so on. And those two
kinds of parties are going to be competing with each other. There will be a very
different outcome depending on who takes power.
The Sons of Iraq and Awakening Council forces are paramilitaries drawn from
Sunni tribal groups that have turned against al-Qaeda militants and have begun
working with US forces. These fighters, many of whom are believed to have been
insurgents themselves, fell out with the Islamic radicals because of their
extremist ideology and crimes against ordinary Iraqi people.
The tribal groups have become increasingly popular in Sunni-dominated
areas like the Anbar province in the west because they are seen as more
legitimate representatives than the political parties in [parliament] now, said
Dodge. The political parties are viewed as not having acted in the best
interest of the Sunni people.
If the tribal groups do not prevail, there is concern that the government
in Baghdad will continue to face questions of legitimacy from the Sunni
community and even that some tribal leaders may return to insurgent activities.
There is a very real fear that if the newer groups do not do well in the
elections, they will take things into their own hands and not respect the
provincial councils, said Ottaway.
Gulf Arab states appear to hope that increasing engagement with Iraq may
help bring about credible Sunni representation in parliament and government.
They seem to be calculating that this will contribute to stabilisation in the
country, which will in turn bring greater stability to the region as a
A more secure Iraq is seen by its neighbours as the key to countering the
influence of an increasingly powerful Iran.
In the past, Iran was kept in check by Iraq. But Iraq is a collapsed state
at this point, said Ottaway. There is a real worry not just in the Gulf, but
in Jordan and Egypt about the unchecked power of Iran.
Jennifer Koons is an IWPR reporter in London.
IRAQI CRISIS REPORT, the publication arm of IWPR's Iraq Capacity Building
project, aims to provide responsible local reporting on humanitarian issues,
disseminate the material broadly in local languages through local media, and
strengthen the capacity of the Iraqi media to cover the reconstruction and
recovery process. The reports are also being published on the web in English,
Arabic and Kurdish.