x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Saudi Arabia offers to end Iraq deadlock

Iraq's major Shiite and Kurdish political blocs reject an offer by Saudi Arabia to host all-party talks designed to end almost eight months of deadlock.

BAGHDAD // Iraq's major Shiite and Kurdish political blocs have rejected an offer by Saudi Arabia to host all-party talks designed to end almost eight months of deadlock in Baghdad over forming a new government.

Senior members of the National Alliance, the main Shiite coalition headed by the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, and the Kurdistani list, which holds a king-making position in the Iraqi parliament, said the proposal would only complicate negotiations.

Iraqiyya, the group led by Ayad Allawi that won a narrow victory in March's national elections, welcomed the plan, putting it further at odds with the National Alliance, its principal rivals for power.

King Abdullah issued the invitation on Saturday, saying Iraq's parties could hold discussions in Riyadh this month under Arab League sponsorship.

The United Nations representative to Iraq, Ad Melkert, had previously expressed concern that Iraqi political groups were holding fruitless bilateral talks, saying it was now "time for all to meet together, at one table". Reaction to the Saudi offer firmly underlined the political divisions dividing Iraq and highlighted the wider struggle for influence in the Middle East between Shiite Iran and the Sunni-dominated Arab states. Iraqiyya, which won wide support among Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, has good relations with Saudi Arabia while the Alliance is closely tied to Tehran. Hassan al Suneid, a leading member of the Alliance, questioned the motives behind the Saudi proposal and said multi-party talks would not solve any problems even if they went ahead. "There are a lot of question marks over this invitation and all parties should study it carefully before they think of accepting," he said in a telephone interview. "This is coming from a country with a vested interest that has already supported one side and one sect in Iraq." Mr al Suneid did not specify which group or sect he was referring to, but Saudi Arabia is widely-perceived in Iraq to have backed Sunni factions, including insurgent groups opposed to the post 2003 Shiite led government. "My question is, why are they making this offer now," Mr al Suneid said. "They have tried to get a government that follows their agenda and have failed in their other efforts, so now they are trying this way." Mahmoud Othman, a leading Kurdish politician, criticised the Saudi offer as "negatively" effecting efforts to form a new Iraqi administration. "The invitation is not based on good motives," he said. "It's not about helping to form a government or to find solutions for Iraq. In fact, it will only complicate matters and might move us back to square one. Iraq's neighbours should not intervene in the political process at the moment. It is Iraq's business." Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon and an ally of Saudi Arabia, yesterday gave his backing to the proposed talks, calling them a "golden opportunity" to Iraq to break its damaging stalemate. Nouri al Maliki, pushing for a second term as Iraq's premier, recently declared that he was close to forming a new government, following talks with the Kurds. Last month he patched up relations with Syria and visited Iran, Turkey and Egypt in an attempt to bolster his bid. Ayad Allawi, his main rival, has similarly been engaged in shuttle diplomacy with regional powers since the election, hoping to enlist their support. Both sides routinely accuse their opponents and their respective international backers of malevolent interference in Iraq's affairs.

nlatif@thenational.ae