By Roula Khalaf
Published: August 19 2008 03:00 | Last updated: August 19 2008 03:00
Last week, King Abdullah of Jordan became the first Arab head of state to travel to Baghdad since the 2003 war. From there, he urged his fellow leaders to re-engage with Iraq, calling it a "source of strength for the Arab nation".
What took him there, five long years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, might have been, in part, Jordan's economic needs: being on good terms with Iraq guarantees a recently agreed deal to provide Amman with discounted Iraqi oil.
But there was more to it. The trip underlined a new diplomatic trend: in recent months several Sunni Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain, have announced the reopening of their embassies in Baghdad and named new ambassadors for the first time since Egypt's envoy was assassinated in 2005.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE foreign minister, became the first top Gulf diplomat to visit Iraq this summer. His trip was followed by the little-noticed arrival of Saad Hariri, head of Lebanon's main Sunni party. He travelled to the Iraqi capital and Najaf, the Shia holy city, where he met Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority.
The road from Arab capitals to Baghdad is still slow and bumpy. But, driven by fear that a US withdrawal from Iraq will pave the way to even greater Iranian influence in a leading Arab state, it is a belated recognition of the Shia government in Baghdad and of the need to promote Shia-Sunni reconciliation more vigorously.
Jordan's monarch was the first to warn, in 2004, of the rise of a "Shia crescent", an unfortunate comment that infuriated Iraqi officials. Realising he might have fanned the flames of sectarianism, the king tried to take back his words, sending his aides to deny he uttered them, and to reinterpret their meaning.
But his words stuck for two reasons. They were an expression of the paranoia of Sunni Arab states about Iran's growing role in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and a symbol of Arab impotence at the shifting balance of power that the US had created by toppling the Sunni Ba'athist regime.
However, in the time since the king made his remark, Sunni Arab states have reinforced their irrelevance through a misguided diplomatic isolation of Iraq. Although the demise of Saddam Hussein had been a boon to his neighbours, Sunni-dominated Arab regimes have never come to terms with the rise of Iraq's majority Shia, or the fact that Baghdad had become a friend of Iran. They have entertained the fantasy of a return of a Sunni strongman or hoped that a secular Shia would take over, no matter that such a leader could not win an election.
As they have lamented the marginalisation of the Sunni minority, they also increased pressure on the US to ensure the Sunni's reinsertion into Iraqi politics. They ignored Iraqi officials' arguments that embracing the Shia administration was the best way to secure a voice in Iraq and check Iranian influence. Instead, the Arabs backed the Sunni. As Iraq began its slide into civil war the Arab states found themselves threatened with a regional Sunni-Shia struggle.
Fortunately, this attitude is changing. After dismissing Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, as a puppet of Iran, some Arab officials now praise him for taking on Shia militias. Hinting that the Iraqi government might be more independent than was first assumed, one senior Arab official tells me that he now sees a rare opportunity to bring Iraq's Shia government back into "the Arab fold". Winning back influence in Iraq is more urgent, he says, because Iran has expanded its influence in another Arab sectariar hotspot, Lebanon, where Tehran's ally, the Hizbollah group, has won a greater political role.
But the Arabs' return to Iraq is still hesitant. Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president, went to Baghdad in March in a media blitz. In contrast, the Jordanian king's visit was announced only after he had departed, in a sign of the continued Jordanian concerns about security.
Worryingly, Saudi Arabia has been flagrantly absent from this tentative wave of engagement. The Saudi regime is apparently still holding a grudge against the Maliki government. Yet it is difficult to see how Arab states can be serious about renewing ties with Iraq without the participation of the Saudis.
To contribute to Iraqi stability - and reassure Iraqi Shia that this is indeed the intention - Arab governments' diplomacy has to be more dynamic and convincing. Cancelling all of the debt Iraq owes to its Arab neighbours, for example, is long overdue. Saudi Arabia, for one, has yet to make that move.
Most important, Arab states have to maintain realistic expectations. It would be foolish to expect Iran's influence to dissipate. The Islamic regime - which fought an eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s - has unparalleled relations with a whole range of Iraqi groups (Kurdish as well as Shia), which it cultivated during decades of Ba'athist oppression.
The aim of embracing Iraq's Shia-led government is to strengthen it so that it can govern the country and stand on its own feet. For that to happen, Iraq needs national reconciliation between its various communities above all. Arab states' contribution should be to encourage dialogue between Iraq and its neighbours as much as between Iraqi parties.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008