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A three-day Arab League summit in Baghdad this week is intended to mark Iraq’s return as a prominent member of the Arab world. It also highlights the country’s political chaos, continued violence and differences with its neighbors and the U.S.
Three months after the last American troops pulled out, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is accused of using security forces and the courts to target Sunni political rivals and consolidate power. Car bombs regularly rip through Iraqi cities, killing more than 50 people last week, and al-Qaeda affiliates and local militias continue to operate.
The Arab League’s spotlight on Syria may undermine Iraq’s aim of proving its regional relevance. Iraq has already remained on the sidelines as Arab states ratchet up their criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabian Prince Saud Al- Faisal, the world’s longest-serving foreign minister, last month said arming Syria’s opposition is an “excellent idea.”
“Iraqis are hoping desperately that this will be the moment of their reintegration into the Arab world,” said Ken Pollack, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research institute. “If Iraq feels rebuffed by the Arab world, that will drive it further into the arms of the Iranians.”
U.S. and other intelligence officials charge that Iran has been flying weapons to Syrian government forces through Iraqi airspace. Iraq’s government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, on March 17 said the country won’t allow any country to use its land or skies as a passage to ferry weapons to Syria. Iraq will ensure that all cargo passing over its skies for Syria is carrying humanitarian aid, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said March 16.
Amid tight security, economy ministers from the region meet today in the Ishtar hotel, a former Sheraton property on the Tigris river across from the capital’s fortified Green Zone. As many as 12 heads of state will attend over the next three days, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said March 26.
Iraq’s turn as regional host comes after President Barack Obama declared March 19 a day of commemoration for the 4,804 American troops who died in the nine-year war, according to icasualties.org.
The war also cost 179 coalition troops and more than 145,000 Iraqis their lives, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, and U.S. taxpayers more than $800 billion, according to the National Priorities Project in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in Baghdad on Dec. 15, said the American sacrifices have been worth it because they set Iraq on a course to democracy.
Still, the implications of Iraq’s unresolved internal conflicts and its failure to reintegrate with its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf are strategic, political and economic, Pollack and other regional specialists said.
Even as Maliki has heightened security in advance of the Arab League meeting, the “Islamic State of Iraq,” an al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for a wave of attacks this month on Baghdad, Karbala and Kirkuk. The attacks demonstrated the militant Sunni group’s ability despite attempts by Iraqi security forces to target it, said Leah Farrall of Australia’s University of Sydney, writing in IHS Defense Security and Risk Consulting.
And while Iraq is a potential beneficiary of the economic sanctions aimed at curbing oil imports from Iran, one of the country’s two major domestic divisions, between Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs, runs through its northern Kirkuk oil field.
Iraq produced 2.76 million barrels of crude oil a day in February, about double its production after the U.S. invasion in March 2003, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s compares with 2.6 million barrels a day just before the invasion, according to the Centre for Global Energy Studies in London, still below the country’s full capacity.
Iraq’s other historic fissure is between its long- suppressed Shiite majority and the Sunni minority, and a day after the last U.S. soldier left Iraq in December, those tensions already were undermining its political system.
Maliki demanded the arrest of his Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, charging that he’d been running death squads. Hashimi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya Party, which ended a month-long boycott of the political process in February, charges that Maliki has politicized the judiciary and oversees a government in which human-rights abuses and torture are endemic.
Hashimi sought refuge in Kurdistan. Kurds meanwhile, are trying to navigate the Sunni-Shiite tensions and retain their autonomy in northern Iraq, particularly over the right to independently develop the oil and gas fields there.
“In the last year, Maliki has chipped away at safeguards for democracy, stocking the country’s Human Rights Ministry with loyalists and using the state’s anti-corruption offices to target political enemies,” said Ned Parker, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
With U.S. backing, the Kurds have pushed for a meeting to resolve the political tensions in Baghdad. That meeting will be held April 5, Iraqi media have reported.
Maliki’s power grab is “very frightening to other Iraqis out there, to the periphery, to the Kurds, to other Shia groups, none of whom wanted him to achieve dictatorial power, which he has,” Pollack said in a telephone interview. That’s triggered some of the violence now sweeping Iraq, Pollack said.
By going after his main rivals in the Sunni-backed Iraqiya party, Maliki also has “exacerbated tensions with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others,” said Ramzy Mardini of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
U.S. officials have met with Maliki to demand that he end Iran’s use of Iraqi airspace to deliver weapons to Assad, according to two participants in the discussions.
Even so, the Baghdad summit will be the first time Iraq has hosted the event since 1990, and it marks several milestones. For the first time since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Iraq is not on the roster of problems to be discussed. Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt are sending new leaders raised to power by the “Arab Spring” rebellion against autocratic rulers.
Iraq has been moving to mend ties with its neighbors, settling disputes with Kuwait, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which named its first ambassador to Baghdad in 20 years, though the diplomat will be based in Amman, Jordan.
Beyond the fact that he is a Shiite like most Iranians, Pollack said, Maliki “is very much indebted to Iran; they engineered his appointment to the prime ministership.”
Mardini rejects allegations that Maliki’s stance on Syria, a majority Sunni country ruled by the minority Alawite sect of Shiism, is due to Iranian pressure.
“It is inherently in Maliki’s interest that Syria doesn’t become a regime aligned with its regional rivals: Saudi Arabia, Qatar,” he said in a telephone interview. “Syria’s armed opposition may be Maliki’s enemies tomorrow.”
In the short term, the summit will be “a successful foray for Iraq, even if there are no resolutions adopted,” Mardini said. “It’s a symbolic victory for Maliki, and an opportunity to mend fences.”
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