Iraq and its neighbours: Bombing a charm offensive

Bomb attacks damage Iraqi hopes for a normal life – Linked on our blogs with IRAQ … reflections, views, shames – Published on The Economist, March 24, 2012.

The bombs spared no part of Iraq, and none of its varied sects. A one-day terror campaign on March 20th brought carnage to Tikrit and Kirkuk in the north, to troubled Anbar province in the west and to the Shia holy city of Karbala, killing 52 people and wounding hundreds. Most upsetting to Iraqi authorities were two blasts in the centre of the capital, Baghdad. These meant attackers had penetrated tightened security ahead of a planned summit meeting of Arab leaders on March 29th … //

… A few old quarrels have been resolved. Kuwaitis claim that Iraqi forces stole aeroplanes and parts from their state airline when Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990 and a UN ruling on borders after the war has never been recognised by Iraq. Iraq has now smoothed over the airline unpleasantness with a $500m deal and promised to maintain borders as mandated by the United Nations.

Saudi Arabia, unrepresented in Baghdad since 2003 as a sign of its disdain for Iraq’s Shia-dominated government, recently broke the ice by appointing a non-resident ambassador. Officials from both sides signed a security agreement and a prisoner exchange. The Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, spoke glowingly of Arab unity in a long interview with a Saudi newspaper that seemed designed to counter misgivings about his closeness to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. To appease another Arab heavyweight, Egypt, Iraq signed a long-delayed deal to hand over $408m to Egyptian workers who were owed back-pay when they fled Iraq in 1990 as its tanks rolled into Kuwait.

In a further sop to its Arab neighbours, Iraq has taken steps away from its close ally Iran. No Iranian delegation has been invited to the Arab League summit, a common courtesy in the past. Mr Maliki has also hardened his line on the crucial issue of Syria. Despite Iran’s strong backing for the beleaguered Syrian regime, Mr Maliki and some of his ministers now say they support change in Syria. They have also promised to forbid Iran from supplying weapons to Syria via Iraqi airspace, although Iraq has no capacity to enforce this without blocking all overflights between its neighbours.

Whether all this represents a real change of heart will not be clear until after the summit. What to do about Syria will naturally top the agenda, with countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia likely to repeat calls to support the opposition with weapons. Iraq, fearful that sectarian conflict in Syria could reopen its own painful wounds, is more likely to push for a negotiated solution. If calls for talks prevail, Iraq could be well placed to be an interlocutor: it has neither cut all diplomatic ties with Damascus, nor enthusiastically supported the opposition.

Still, Iraq’s attempt to loosen Iran’s embrace may be short-lived. With its links to Shia political parties and religious figures, Iranian power has much deeper roots in Baghdad than the marigolds in the Green Zone. And this week’s murderous attacks, almost certainly executed by al-Qaeda’s Iraqi offshoot with the aim of disrupting the summit, may yet succeed in their goal. At the very least more Arab countries are likely to send lower-ranking delegations to the summit. In the meantime, Iraq has gone into a security lockdown. Millions of state employees have been let off work until April 1st. As many as 100,000 soldiers have moved to Baghdad from the provinces. Troops at checkpoints are searching every car. If only it were that easy.
(full text and links to related articles).


The internet in the Middle East, The Arab Spring’s online backlash, on The Economist, March 29, 2012;

Syria: Descending Into Civil War, on ZNet, by Walden Bello, March 30, 2012;

How the West de-democratised the Middle East, on Al Jazeera, by Irfan Ahmad, March 30, 2012.

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