Are we witnessing an all-round change of attitude towards Iraq?
Consider the following.
Several Arab powers that had tried to shun new Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 have announced a change of policy, including plans to open their embassies in Baghdad. At least four of them have issued invitations to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for official visits, reversing a policy under which the Iraqi leader was treated as a pariah.
When combined, the two events could indicate the realisation in Arab capitals of the impossibility of replacing Maliki with a man of their choice.
For its part, the Islamic Republic in Tehran has unrolled the red carpet for Maliki, ending the chill that had marked the mullah’s attitude since they failed to impose their candidate as prime minister in Baghdad.
Some Iraqi politicians have criticised Maliki’s visit to Tehran. But anyone who claims that Iraq can ignore Iran, regardless of who rules in Tehran, is delusional. Some 90 per cent of Iraq’s population live in areas only 60 miles from the Iranian border. Leaving aside the trade linked to the US-led coalition’s presence in Iraq, almost half of Iraq’s commercial exchanges today are with Iran.
To be sure, the Islamic Republic will do all it can to make the Americans bleed in Iraq. But I doubt that the mullahs want the US-led coalition to cut and run before Iraq is stabilised.
This is one of those deadly ambiguities that have always marked international politics.
Two of Iraq’s neighbours, Turkey and Syria have also indicated what could amount to significant changes in their hitherto negative postures on new Iraq.
Turkey has feted Maliki with great pomp and publicly abandoned its threat of military intervention against Turkish-Kurdish terrorists based in northern Iraq. Turkish Premier Recep Tayyib Erdogan has gone out of his way to throw his support behind Maliki and promise joint action against terrorism.
Erdogan knows that stability in Baghdad would deprive his most vocal opponents within the Turkish military of their favourite nationalistic theme of intervention against terrorists in northern Iraq.
Even more surprising is what looks like a change of attitude by Syria.
For the first time, the Syrian authorities have acknowledged that Islamist terrorists fighting in Iraq have a presence in Syrian authority. The Syrians have even admitted that last week their forces were trapped in an ambush by the terrorists. Six Syrian soldiers died and 11 others were injured. The message is clear: the terrorists killing the Iraqis every day could easily expand the killing fields to Syria and beyond.
The fact that the so-called “security committee”, consisting of Iraq’s neighbours plus the United Sates and Britain appears to have become operational is also significant news.
Add to this what looks like a change of attitude by the United Nations and the new picture becomes clearer. For more than four years, the UN tried to keep its involvement in Iraq to the lowest level decently possible. Former UN secretary-General Kofi Annan always believed that he had made a deal with Saddam Hussein and that the Us and its allies were wrong in toppling the dictator. At the same time, the UN was traumatised by the murder of Sergio de Mello, its charismatic first envoy to new Iraq.
The UN’s new secretary-general, the Korean Ban Ki-moon does not suffer from Annan’s personal hang-ups about Iraq, including the involvement of his son and several of his senior UN aides in the oil-for-food scam ran by Saddam Hussein. Secretary Ban has renewed the UN’s commitment to Iraq, especially on the issue of urgently needed humanitarian assistance.
According to the best sources at least half of Iraq’s population still needs humanitarian relief along the lines established by the UN in the late 1990s.
The UN is also beginning to change its nonchalant attitude towards the Iraqi refugee problem.
No one quite knows how many Iraqis have become refuges as a result of the current violence. Jordan claims to host over a million Iraqis. But when we checked last April he Jordanians had registered no more than 18,000 Iraqi refugees. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis in Jordan regarded themselves as temporary residents and, engaged in business, largely paid their own way.
For its part, Syria claims to have received 750,000 refugees from Iraq. But there, too, the figures do not tally. In Syria, the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered some 40,000 “displaced persons” from Iraq. These include at least 25,000 of Palestinian origin plus an unknown number of Egyptians and Sudanese who had been brought to Iraq under Saddam Hussein as part of his plan to change the sectarian balance there.
At the same time some 1.5 million Iraqis who had been refugees in Turkey and Iran for many years have returned home since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
On balance, therefore, Iraq seems to have generated some half a million refugees since 2003. These new refugees include large numbers of Christians who have had to flee their homes under pressure from both Shiite and Sunni terrorists. There are also large numbers of educated Iraqis, precisely the type of peoples that new Iraq needs to build a viable state and society.
The Maliki government has not paid enough attention to the refugee problem and the more pressing problem of displaced persons inside Iraq itself. (They number over a million people, according to the most conservative estimates.) The $25 million package that Maliki has allocated for the purpose is pitiful, to say the least. (The latest annual national budget presented by Maliki amounts to $44 billion, an all time record for the country).
As we move towards the heart of the summer it seems as if a general consensus is developing that stabilising Iraq under its new system is in everyone’s interest. For all that, however, Iraq is not yet out of the woods. Many people remained committed to destroying Iraq, and quite a few powers still wish to hedge their bets. The struggle for Iraq is far from over.