Arab League reaches out for Iraq
DAMASCUS - Amr Mousa, the secretary general of the 22-member Arab League, has just wrapped up a three-day visit to Iraq, his first since October 2005. Mousa met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the powerful head of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. He pushed for reconciliation with all three leaders and their deputies.
Vice President Tarek Hashemi, who represents Iraqi Sunnis, was blunt, saying that reconciliation "has not yet started", noting that Sunnis will not be back fully on board the political process until they are given more powers through constitutional amendments.
Hakim struck a different tone, welcoming talks with Sunnis and noting that he had no problem with ex-Ba'athists being part of the political process, words that were music to the ears of the Arab League secretary general. What remained a red line to him, however, were "Saddamists".
Talabani granted Mousa an audience not in Baghdad, but in Sulaymaniyya in Iraqi Kurdistan, brushing off speculation that he was going to step down in late 2009 and retire from political life to write his memoirs. He welcomed any efforts by the league of Arab states  to help Iraq stabilize its domestic situation and secure its borders with Turkey, Iran and Syria.
The Mousa visit also aimed at encouraging Arab states to send ambassadors to Baghdad and pay off Arab debts accumulated during the years of Saddam Hussein. Before departure, Mousa gave what the Iraqi press described as a "present" to the Iraqi government, announcing that the upcoming Arab summit will be held in Baghdad in 2010.
Moussa noted, "We are less worried about Iraq, due to the positive developments in security". He thanked Maliki for "relentless efforts" to bring about peace and security to the war-torn streets of the Iraqi capital. This is not new to the Arab League, which is still searching for a success story after having failed at reconciliation efforts in Lebanon, Palestine and Sudan.
Last July, Mousa appointed a representative for the Arab League in Baghdad who replaced a former diplomat who had resigned in January 2008, claiming that reconciliation in Iraq was "impossible". While Mousa was talking to Iraqi officials, Maliki made headlines - making sure to attract the attention of his Egyptian guest - by withdrawing the passports of all ex-heads of Iraqi city councils.
The reason, he explained, was that a nation-wide anti-corruption campaign was underway and all those suspected of involvement could not travel until investigations were completed. If anything, Mousa noted, Iraq was sending off messages to the world that it was now serious - more than ever since 2003 - about nation-building, fighting corruption and distribution of power based not on ethnicity and religion, but merit.
Ordinary Iraqis are wondering what Arab leaders will see if they come to Baghdad, one year from now, in March 2010, and what will they add to the devastated country? Will they be well protected? Can Iraqi security, which Maliki is so proud of, really cater to the well-being of Arab heavyweights like Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Libya's Muammar Gaddafi?
Assad is popular in Iraq, because of his stance on the war of 2003, but many Arab leaders are not, especially those from the Gulf, for having tolerated Saddam since 1979 and for not lifting a finger to prevent the invasion of 2003. Many Iraqis remember only too well the last Arab summit that was held in their capital, 31 years ago, in November 1978.
It came right after Anwar Sadat of Egypt signed the Camp David Accords with Israel and it made Baghdadis feel that they were important, now that Cairo had fallen from everybody's grace list. Twenty angry Arab leaders came to Baghdad to reject Camp David. Saddam went through the difficult task of trying to patch up petty Arab rivalries. He muzzled all members of the Syrian opposition, for example, who were based in Baghdad, so as not to anger Syria's late president Hafez al-Assad.
He ordered that the graveyard of the Hashemite dynasty in Baghdad, all murdered in 1958, be cleaned up and renovated. King Hussein of Jordan, after all, was planning to visit the tomb of his slain cousin, King Faysal II. The Baghdad summit decided to expel Egypt from the league, move league headquarters to Tunis, cut all diplomatic relations with Cairo, and withdraw all Arab economic aid. Iraq, which was rotating chair of the summit, sent envoys to meet with Sadat and convey their decisions, but he refused to even meet them.
If the 2010 summit is held in Baghdad, ordinary Iraqis may be happy to "feel" that they are still part of the Arab world, and not outcasts under the influence of Iran or the United States. As an Iraqi poet put it, "It means we are still there, still touchable, and still visible to the rest of the world. Let the Arab leaders come and see what happened to great Baghdad! It has been resorted to remains of a great city."
Other Iraqis are keeping their fingers crossed that Mousa's call will be answered promptly, first at the upcoming Doha summit at the end of March, and at the Baghdad summit in 2010.
Last year, a United Nations conference was held in Sweden to discuss the debts of Iraq, which ran to US$67 billion and are owned mostly to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Iraq, for example, is still required to pay $28 billion in compensation to Kuwait for the invasion of 1990.
Post-2003 Iraqi leaders argue that this is unfair, claiming that they are paying the price for a crime they did not commit, and which they had sharply denounced when working in the underground during Saddam's reign. Currently, Iraq pays 5% of its oil revenue in compensation to Kuwait.
Although relations improved dramatically after 2003, Kuwait still refuses to cross off any of Iraq's debts, symbolizing how bitter Kuwaitis are with the invasion that temporarily toppled their crown and ruined their country in 1990.
If canceling debts is not possible, Iraqis want - and this can be read in Iraqi dailies and heard on Iraqi talk shows - a resumption of full diplomatic activity with the Arab world. Currently there are 30 ambassadors in Baghdad, mostly from non-Arab countries. The main turn-off was the infamous 2005 incident, when the Egyptian ambassador was kidnapped and murdered by al-Qaeda. Syria, Bahrain, the UAE, and Jordan named ambassadors in 2008, but Saudi Arabia has not, claiming that the country is still not safe.
Some observers claim that such representation will not come until these states feel that Iraq is no longer an Iranian satellite, citing differences between Riyadh, Cairo, and Maliki. While the Arabs continue to have second thoughts, the US is already preparing to send a new ambassador to Baghdad - namely Christopher Hill to replace Ryan Crocker. Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called on President Barack Obama to reconsider Hillary Clinton's choice of Hill, claiming that he lacks significant Middle East experience, so as not to repeat the mistake of ex-ambassador John Negroponte who also was a newcomer to the Arab world.
Iraqis have always argued that the first countries to send ambassadors to Baghdad were Iran and the US. The first foreign leaders to visit Iraq after the downfall of Saddam were Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and US president George W Bush.
Historically, Iraq has always been a hotbed for Arab nationalism. It inspired Arab nationalist thought during crucial moments in contemporary history, and came to the aid of Arab countries at war with Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Millions were enraged in 2003, when new decision-makers of Iraq toyed with the idea of adapting a new flag for the republic, or questioning whether to keep Iraq's Arab identity in the Iraqi constitution.
Many Iraqis have welcomed Mousa's 2009 visit. Others, however, see it as too little, too late. They feel that the Arab world turned its back on Iraq again after 2003, just as it did from 1990 to 1991.
1. The 22-member League of Arab States consists of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Mauritania, Somalia, Palestinian, Djibouti and Comoros.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.