Adam Morrow

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Why Are Arab Ambassadors Returning to Baghdad Now?

CAIRO, Nov 7 (IPS) - More than five years after the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Arab capitals are beginning to send ambassadors to Baghdad. But some Egyptian commentators question the timing of the move, which they attribute to pressure from Washington.

"Arab governments originally wanted a full withdrawal of foreign forces and a stable security environment before sending ambassadors," Ahmed Thabet, political science professor at Cairo University, told IPS. "Yet the pending U.S.-Iraq security agreement promises to turn the current military occupation of Iraq into a constitutionally sanctioned one."

In early October, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit and Petroleum Minister Sameh Fahmi visited the Iraqi capital with the stated aim of improving the two countries' long-stalled bilateral relationship. The trip represented the first by an Egyptian foreign minister since 1990, when Cairo severed diplomatic relations with Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the wake of the latter's invasion of Kuwait.

At a joint press conference with Iraqi counterpart Hoshiyar Zebari, Aboul-Gheit announced that Cairo intended to restore full diplomatic relations with Iraq and to soon dispatch an ambassador to Baghdad. He went on to say that Egypt also planned to embark on closer economic cooperation with Iraq, particularly on the reconstruction of the war-torn country's energy sectors.

"Egypt has a confirmed desire to build a strong and active Iraqi-Egyptian relationship," Aboul-Gheit told reporters.

On Oct. 14, he reiterated Egypt's intention to step up its diplomatic presence in Iraq, noting that construction of a new Egyptian embassy on the banks of Baghdad's Tigris River was close to completion.

"The situation in Iraq is stabilizing gradually and it demands that a country like Egypt, which has interests with Iraq, begin to give itself a presence on the ground," Aboul-Gheit was quoted as saying by the official MENA news agency. He added, however, that full diplomatic relations "would not be resumed overnight."

Ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Washington has urged Sunni-Arab states to normalize diplomatic relations with the government in Baghdad. Until recently, however, Arab capitals -- distrustful of the Shia-led, Iran-friendly Iraqi government -- have been reluctant to comply.

Arab governments have also tried to condition the dispatch of their ambassadors on a system of power sharing more favorable to Iraq's Sunni Muslim population and the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. Neither of these conditions has been met.

In addition, Arab governments have expressed concern for the safety of their representatives. Such worries were largely vindicated in 2005, when Egyptian diplomat Ihab al-Sherif -- tentatively named Egypt's ambassador to Iraq -- was kidnapped and presumed killed.

Despite these stumbling blocks, Egypt is not the only Arab state to make diplomatic overtures towards Baghdad.

In August, Bahrain appointed its first ambassador to Iraq since 2003, followed a month later by the United Arab Emirates. Kuwait followed in late October, sending its first ambassador to Baghdad since the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Jordan, too, has recently named an ambassador (although he has yet to officially assume his post), and Saudi Arabia has stated its intention to open an embassy in the Iraqi capital in the near future.

In mid-October, even Syria -- frequently accused by Washington of not doing enough to curb the flow of anti-occupation fighters into Iraq from its territory -- sent its first ambassador to Baghdad in decades. Diplomatic relations between Syria and Iraq, long ruled by rival factions of the pan-Arab Ba'ath Party, had been frozen for the most part since Saddam Hussein assumed presidency in 1979.

According to some Egyptian commentators, the newfound Arab enthusiasm for establishing embassies in Iraq can be attributed mainly to pressure from Washington.

"The rush to send ambassadors comes as a result of U.S. dictates," Abdel-Halim Kandil, political analyst and editor-in-chief of independent weekly Sout Al-Umma told IPS. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he added, "has consistently pushed Washington's Arab allies in the region -- Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States -- to establish embassies in Baghdad with the stated aim of 'countering Iranian influence' in Iraq."

Iran -- a Shia-Persian power as opposed to a Sunni-Arab one -- boasts strong ties with post-war Iraq, including a large and fully operational embassy in Baghdad.

"Unlike the Arab states, Iran already has tremendous assets in Iraq, including allied political and religious movements, armed groups, enormous bilateral trade and a shared border," said Kandil. "Since the U.S. invasion, Iraq has turned from a competitor of Iran to an Iranian sphere of influence."

Kandil went on to question official claims that the Arab diplomatic drive towards Baghdad was intended to preserve Iraq's 'Arab identity'.

"I'm afraid it's too late for that," he said. "The post-occupation constitution states that Iraq is a Muslim country, but not an Arab one. It also refers to Iraq's Sunni-Muslim population -- not Iraq itself -- as part of the wider Arab world.

"What's more," added Kandil, "the Arab League opened a representative office in Baghdad, which, notably, it only does in non-Arab countries."

Thabet agreed that recent Arab moves to establish diplomatic ties with Iraq were largely the result of U.S. prompting.

"By normalizing relations with Baghdad, Arab governments can claim they are supporting their Sunni-Arab brethren and contesting Persian influence in Iraq," he said. "But they're actually doing it to please the U.S. and its ally Israel.

"Many Iraqis see this new Arab diplomatic drive as against their national interests," added Thabet. "They see it as little more than a U.S. attempt to legitimize the occupation and bolster Arab support for the unpopular government in Baghdad."

Thabet went on to say that some Iraqis fear recent Arab diplomatic activity "could eventually lead to the replacement of foreign occupation troops with a pan-Arab peacekeeping force to police Iraq."

Thabet also questioned the wisdom of the move in light of Iraq's still explosive security environment.

"The security situation in Iraq remains highly volatile, with almost daily acts of violence," he said. "Egypt's stated intention to send an ambassador now indicates it still doesn't understand the real situation inside the country -- a mistake that led to the disappearance of its last ambassador to Iraq."