|Arab League Meeting in South Africa|
The Baghdad leadership hoped that the meeting would serve as a coming out party for Iraq, held exactly nine years after the start of American invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein. In a sign of the new times, the summit was the first to ever be headed by a Kurd, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. To ensure support, Iraq signed off on a number of outstanding concessions with other Arab states. They met Saudi demands that Saddam-era Trade Minister Mohammad Mahdi Saleh be released from prison, and reduced terrorist sentences from capital punishment to life in prison. With Egypt, they settled the issue of "yellow money orders"--worker compensation from the Saddam era that had not been redeemed. For African leaders from Somalia, Dijibouti, and the Comoros Islands, Iraq rented presidential planes to take them to the summit.
Violence, however, marred the days before the summit, with a string of deadly bombings rocking the country on March 21st, hitting eight cities from Kirkuk to Karbala. In Baghdad, despite the security measures in place, bombs exploded outside the foreign ministry, security buildings, and just past the walls of the Green Zone. All together 46 people died and over 200 were wounded in less than six hours. The Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida affiliated group, claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The meeting itself was largely centered around the growing regional divide between the NATO-friendly governments (the Saudis, Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen, etc...) and the Tehran-centered bloc of Iran, Syria, and the Hezbollah party in Lebanon. The absence in Baghdad of the GCC leaders, as well as leaders from U.S. allies Egypt and Yemen, only went to show which side of this divide Iraq is starting to sit on.
For Iraq, the result of the 2003 American war was to empower the Shia ethnicity, 60% of the Iraqi population and long oppressed by the Baghdad power structure, and now not surprisingly the Shia Iraqi government is very close to Tehran, its neighbor and fellow Shia government. Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi ideologue revered in Baghdad's sprawling Shia slums, has recently spent much time studying in Iran, and it was through the demands of the Sadrist bloc in the Iraqi parliament that the U.S. was denied its Status of Forces Agreement, which would have allowed for the permanent stationing of U.S. troops in the country. Muddying the entire situation is the fact that these Iranian-friendly leaders are the U.S.'s nominal allies in postwar Iraq, with much of the violence and terrorism the plagues the country being committed by far-right Sunni jihadists, sponsored by al-Qaeda networks that are funded from the Gulf Monarchies. Yet it was Iran that the U.S. felt the need to warn whilst withdrawing the troops from Iraq, saying in essence "don't get too cozy with Baghdad, this is still property of the American Empire."
Contrast this with the GCC states, which host large American military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, and participate in NATO exercises and training through the Istanbul agreement. Over the past year, the U.S. has been pushing for these states to integrate military duties like reconnaissance patrols and missile defense among themselves, forming a NATO-lite in the Persian Gulf. And the Soviet Union to these Arab Monarchs "Free World"? Iran, of course, sitting just across the Gulf with its 70 million citizens, oil reserves, and Shia theocrats. The Sunni emirs are terrified of uprisings from their own populations, which have a significant Shia underclass (who coincidentally inhabit much of the oil rich areas stretching along the Gulf's western littoral), and thus look gravely at the growing Iranian influence in Iraq.
Reidar Visser, however, provides a counterpoint to this argument, namely that a growing number of Arab states are willing to deal with Iraq independent of the Sunni-Shia conflict. Writing on his excellent website, Iraq and Gulf Analysis, Vasser states:
Also, it is significant that a growing number of Arab states are prepared to interact with Iraq as a perfectly normal Arab state. This is so despite continued attempts by Gulf states to dismiss the Iraqi government as Iranian marionettes. The Arab heads of state who did come to Baghdad probably realized that the town wasn’t full of Safavids after all and that attempts to reduce regional politics to a clear-cut Sunni–Shiite sectarian struggle are futile. (An AP piece claimed “Sunni rulers” shunned the summit whereas in fact 8 “Sunni rulers” were present!) Growing number of Arab rulers realize it is normal for Iraq to have leaders who may or may not be Shiites.
Concerning the crisis in Syria, Bahgdad has also played closer to the Iranian position of supporting the Assad government, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have begun openly arming opposition fighters. For its part, the Iraqi leadership has pledged that neither side should be armed, however the U.S. government suspects that Iranian military assistance being supplied to Syria is transiting through Iraqi airspace. On March 12th, Vice President Biden personally called Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and asked that the Iranian flights be made "a high priority," receiving assurances from al-Maliki that the issue would be discussed with the Iranians. Three days later, however, Baghdad issued a statement denying the charge. Then, last week, the State Department publicly raised the issue, with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stating that the U.S. was "concerned about the over-flight of Iraq by Iranian cargo flights headed to Syria." Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki again denied the charge, saying that only humanitarian goods travelled through Iraqi territory. An article on the subject from McClatchy News' reliable Baghdad bureau reads:
How many Iranian flights have crossed over Iraq to reach Syria is a matter of debate. A prominent Iraqi politician with personal knowledge of the issue said that "the Iranians have 34 flights a week to Syria from various Iranian airports," and that all those flights use Iraqi air space.
He said American diplomats had complained to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry but that "Maliki will have to agree (to the flights) because the Iranians will pressure him."
"The Americans want Iraq to force them to land inside Iraq, but of course Iraq didn't agree to this," the Iraqi politician said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the Iraqi government's sensitive role in the Syria crisis. He noted that Iraq and Syria are major trading partners, with Iraq purchasing more than a quarter of Syrian exports. He noted that with Turkey imposing a trade embargo on Syria, "Iraq is the lifeline to Syria now."
"If Iraq had not opened up this route, Turkey could've forced the flights to land there first for inspection of the planes," the politician said.
So where were the NATO friendly leaders, if not in Baghdad? They were preparing to meet at the "Friends of Syria" held today in Istanbul. Attended by representatives from over 70 states, including U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, the "Friends of Syria" could be more aptly named "Enemies of Assad."
Read Part II coming soon