ABU DHABI // The UAE yesterday appointed its ambassador to Iraq, the first GCC country to do so since the US-led invasion in 2003. The nation's ambassador to India, Abdullah Ibrahim al Shehhi, was officially named as the top envoy to Iraq following a Cabinet meeting yesterday. The appointment comes after the UAE announced its intention to reopen its embassy last month and significantly boosts its diplomatic presence in Baghdad, which has been minimal since 2006.
Mr Shehhi is expected to assume his new position in Baghdad after the issuance of a presidential decree, the final step in the appointment process. The announcement came a few hours after the arrival of Nouri al Maliki, the President of Iraq, to the capital. Also yesterday, Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, the Minister of Interior, met his Iraqi counterpart Jawad Kathem to discuss "strengthening joint co-operation", according to an official statement.
A government official, who asked not to be identified, said yesterday the embassy would have an active role in helping rebuild Iraq. The presence of an embassy was a statement saying, "We are here and how we can help?" he said. The official said the choice of the ambassador to India further highlighted the importance of the position. "India is one of the our main diplomatic partners. It's a high-calibre appointment."
He said the decision to appoint an ambassador was not the result of pressure from any foreign governments. "If it was about pressure, we would have done that many years ago," he said. "We felt it's the right time; there is relative stability and the political climate is right." Ridwan Killidare, an Iraqi politician from Najaf, said yesterday he was keen to see the country's relations with its Arab neighbours return to normal.
"The UAE's decision to open an embassy and appoint an ambassador to Baghdad is also an extremely important step, not least in terms of its symbolism," he said. "I hope this points towards a future of closer ties between Iraq and the UAE that can be to the benefit of both nations." Jordan appointed an ambassador to Baghdad earlier this month. The country's embassy in Baghdad was the target of a suicide car bombing in 2003 that killed 17 people.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister, announced during a surprise visit to Baghdad last month the Government's decision to re-establish a high-level diplomatic mission in Iraq. UAE Embassy staff remained stationed in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003, but were withdrawn in 2006. In that year, two Iraqis working for the UAE Embassy were killed when militants opened fire on their car. Two weeks later, in May, Naji Rashid al Nuaimi, who was the embassy's first secretary, was kidnapped by militants and held for two weeks before he was freed.
No senior Emirati diplomats have been stationed in the country since. Sheikh Abdullah's trip to Baghdad last month was one of the highest-level visits by a GCC official since Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, visited the country in his capacity as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces in 2003. Arab countries have avoided permanently stationing ambassadors in Baghdad since the kidnapping and killing of Egypt's envoy in 2005.
Iraqi officials have repeatedly urged Arab parliamentary delegates to encourage their governments to resume diplomatic relations. The UAE is one of the largest contributors of aid to Iraq, and government officials say the dispatching of the ambassador will help in the implementation of aid projects. It has trained thousands of Iraqi police officers in co-operation with Germany at facilities in the Emirates.
The two countries have also bought and refurbished non-combat equipment, such as ambulances and cranes, for the Iraqi security services. Shortly after the toppling of the regime in Baghdad, the UAE was one of the first countries to mount field hospitals in the capital. The UAE Red Crescent Society has carried out more than US$41 million (Dh150.5m) in emergency projects in Iraq. In 2006, Abu Dhabi hosted a meeting for international organisations that outlined economic reforms in Iraq.
The meeting was part of the US- and UN-backed International Compact with Iraq, a five-year plan to bring peace to the country and help reconstruction. Syria and Jordan are the only other countries to have sent foreign ministers to Iraq since the US invasion. Arab countries that already have embassies, without ambassadors, in Iraq include Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia. The Palestinian Territories also maintains a mission in Iraq.