x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Saddam's shadow still defines Iraq's dysfunctional state

The Arab League "summit" in Baghdad was an odd affair, haunted by Saddam Hussein and reminding everyone of Iraq's current problems.

Al Khold, or the "mortality hall", in Baghdad's Republican Palace holds a special meaning for both Iraqis and Kuwaitis. In 1979, when Saddam Hussein purged the top ranks of the Baathist Party, sending them to the executioner's block, he did it from this seat of power. And in 1990, the ill-fated decision to invade Kuwait was also formulated in this hall.

Last week, as Iraq hosted the Arab League summit, representatives from 21 countries met in Baghdad for the first time in two decades. The summit, which was expected to discuss Syria's unravelling crisis, only sharpened the focus on Iraq's dysfunctional domestic politics after Qatar and Saudi Arabia sent low-level delegations as a "message" to the country about the increasing marginalisation of Sunnis.

For those who did attend, the dead dictator's presence could be felt. The Republican Palace was Saddam's preferred location to meet heads of state, not to mention order the murders of his compatriots. It was also hard to forget that after his fall, the palace served as US headquarters until 2008.

Baghdad spent about $500 million (Dh1.8 billion) sprucing up the capital for this summit, planting palm trees, repaving roads, constructing villas and renovating hotels as it sought to re-establish its ties with the Arab world.

But Iraqi politics seem caught in a time warp, ignoring the pressing issues facing the region today. Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki took pains to refer to Baghdad by its historic name, Dar Al Salam, the house of peace. There was a startling lack of irony from a man who has hounded his rivals out of the capital.

Since the summit closed its doors with hardly a single note of substance, Iraq's sectarian rivalry has continued unabated. Vice President Tareq Al Hashemi, one of the most senior Iraqi Sunni politicians, has in the last few days fled from the Kurdish autonomous region, first to Qatar and on Wednesday to Saudi Arabia. The national meeting that was scheduled for yesterday to discuss Mr Al Hashemi's fate has been postponed indefinitely.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have refused to honour the arrest warrant issued against Mr Al Hashemi. An editorial in Al Sharq Al Awsat, the Saudi-owned newspaper, called for sanctions against Mr Al Maliki's administration "to prevent the emergence of a new Saddam or another Bashar", referring to the embattled Syrian president.

One of a handful of heads of state to attend was Kuwait's Emir Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah. The attendant Kuwaiti media, however, seemed focused on healing the wounds of the first Iraq War rather than the issues of the day. "For us, being here offers some sort of closure," one journalist told me, "really an eye on the destruction and suffering of the Iraqis, and not just what we went through."

Kuwait's state TV channel chose Firdous Square, where the column that once supported Saddam's statue still stands, as a backdrop to their live-news feed.

Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, played his role accordingly. "Iraq will be a force for good, and not for evil as was used in the past," he said. Addressing the Kuwaitis specifically, he added: "Today you are sitting in this hall." In Al Khold, it was still Saddam's decisions that mattered.

It was supposed to be Iraq's coming-out party, after decades of dictatorship and the US occupation. But Baghdad's fresh coat of paint did little to hide the dysfunction entrenched in its troubled history.

Delegates were transported from the airport in red double-decker buses, which passed through Victory Arch, a pair of hands holding crossed swords erected by Saddam after the Iran-Iraq war, on the way to the heavily fortified Green Zone. At times our buses would get flagged to the side of the road, and all 40 of the journalists on-board would have to shift to another bus and do the security checks all over again. One day our bus, escorted by Humvees and an ambulance, was held at a checkpoint for three hours even though we had approval to pass.

The security situation was stifling and Baghdad's usually busy streets almost deserted. The checkpoints were so intrusive that at one a female journalist was brusquely searched by three policewomen at the same time. It verged on assault. Despite all the measures, including a citywide curfew, mortar attacks still hit dangerously close to the summit.

"There is no trust in Iraq," a security officer, our minder on the bus, told the journalists. He pointed to Baghdad's virtually deserted Tahrir and Kahramana squares to illustrate his point. "I have worked for the ministry of defence for the past nine years. I am a security official, and everyday when I walk into work I get checked from top to bottom and even have to remove my belt.

"We are living in a giant military camp. This is the reality."

For ordinary Iraqis, there are some hard reasons as to why they might harken back to Saddam's brutal regime. And as for Iraq's "coming out" in the Arab League, days after the summit, and $500 million later, Iraq's relationship with its neighbours only continues to deteriorate.



On Twitter: @hadeelasayegh