Baghdad says it can 'count on our brother Arabs', while critics argue a new embassy only helps the US.
Diplomatic actions signal end to isolation
The UAE's recent decision to open its embassy in Iraq was widely seen as a significant step for the war-torn country. Yesterday, the UAE moved even closer towards normalising relations when the President named his envoy to India as the new ambassador to Iraq. The UAE also announced it would forgive US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) in debt and arrears. Both announcements were made during a visit to Abu Dhabi by Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister.
The appointment of Abdullah Ibrahim al Shehhi came one month after Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister, became the first high-ranking official from an Arab country in the Gulf to visit Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. After years of limited - and at times hostile - relations with regional powers, last month's visit by Sheikh Abdullah broke new ground. It sent a strong message that Iraq was now to be welcomed back into the Arab fold, according to leading political groups in Iraq.
"The UAE's presence and involvement in Iraq is very positive and it's something we thank the Emiratis for," said Adnan Faris al Nuiemi, a spokesman for the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, one of the main powers behind the Baghdad government. "Sheikh Abdullah's visit is a clear signal of support that we are not alone in our struggle to stabilise and build our country. "From now on we will be able to count on our brother Arabs."
Acknowledging that it was a "courageous" move because of persistent security risks, Mr Nuiemi said he hoped other Arab states would follow the UAE's lead in sending senior representatives and opening embassies. "None of us in the Middle East can afford for Iraq to be isolated from our neighbours and the Arab nations," he said. "I hope this signals an end to that isolation." Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 all but severed ties between Iraq and the GCC states.
The UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia allied with the United States and viewed the Iraqi dictator as a danger to the region. However, they also feared the consequences of the US plan for a regime change, correctly warning it would plunge Iraq into chaos, empower Islamic militants and shift the regional balance of power in favour of Iran. As Iraq descended into sectarian strife after 2003, diplomatic missions in Baghdad were effectively shut down. The UAE withdrew its most senior diplomat - a charge d'affaires - from Baghdad in May 2006 after one of its diplomats was kidnapped by Islamic militants and held for two weeks before being released.
Egypt has had no official representation since the abduction and murder by al Qa'eda of its charge d'affaires in Baghdad in July 2005. Only Jordan kept its embassy open but without a sitting ambassador until last week, when Amman swore in Nayef al Zaidan. Mr Zaidan had served as Jordan's consul general in Dubai. It is not just security concerns that have hindered links between Iraq and other Middle Eastern states. The region's Sunni-ruled Arab monarchies have been reluctant to upgrade ties with Iraq because of its Shiite-led government's perceived bias towards the non-Arab Shiite Iran.
Those fears are believed to have been somewhat allayed by the recent actions taken against the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia led by Muqtada al Sadr, by Mr Maliki, who is himself a Shiite. The Sadr bloc, the political wing of the Mahdi Army, also said in an interview that it welcomed the UAE's decision to open an embassy. "It's an important gesture, and an important step that has given us a new sense of optimism for Iraq," said Rasim al Marwani, a Sadrist spokesman.
The Sadrists are fervent nationalists, persistent in their opposition to the US-led occupation of Iraq. They are protesting against a security agreement between the US and Iraqi governments that will determine how long US troops remain in the country. Mr Marwani said deeper political ties with the UAE and greater Arab unity could help efforts to safeguard Iraq's sovereignty and encourage the US to withdraw troops. "With more Arab support, and more support from the Islamic nations, Iraq can face the challenges of terrorism and occupation it faces with more confidence."
Kurdish and Sunni Arab political figures have also praised the UAE's pledge to have closer links to Iraq. But support has not been universal. The Association of Muslim Scholars, an umbrella group of Sunni fundamentalists, condemned the move, and said it gave a cloak of legitimacy to an illegal foreign occupation. Insurgent groups still fighting a guerrilla war against US troops and the Iraqi government - which they view as a US puppet regime - also criticised the UAE's decision to open an embassy and thereby recognise the Iraqi authorities.
"The UAE embassy is part of an American plan to show the world that Iraq is normal, stable and secure," said Muayed Abdulkadir, editor of Al Saut, an Iraqi resistance newspaper. "They want to sideline the resistance and cover the truth of what is happening. "The Americans did the same thing in the Vietnam War and asked everyone to open embassies in occupied Saigon. In the end, these things don't work. America was kicked out of Vietnam and the resistance will kick them out of Iraq."
Washington has long been pressing its Sunni Arab allies to show more support for the Shiite-led government in Baghdad by sending ambassadors to Iraq. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, recently urged "everyone to increase their diplomatic, economic, social and cultural engagement with the people of Iraq". She stressed that official visits and opening embassies - both steps taken by the UAE - were essential.
Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, who met with Sheikh Abdullah in Baghdad, has said Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain had promised to re-open their embassies to Iraq. Sayyed Mohammad Khteeb, an independent member of Iraq's council of ministers, said the UAE would now help Iraq recover from years of violence and increasing poverty. "We have been waiting too long for our Arab brothers to come and stand with us and the UAE is the first to show it will," he said. "By doing this they have helped us make another step towards becoming a normal, peaceful country. The UAE will be remembered as bringing us back into the embrace of the international community."