KUWAIT, (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki chided neighbouring states on Tuesday for not beefing up ties with Baghdad or writing off Iraq’s debts now that Saddam Hussein is gone and Iraq is no longer a threat to the region.
Maliki, speaking at a meeting in Kuwait of foreign ministers from the region and Western powers, did not name any countries but his remarks appeared aimed at Sunni Arab states that have only low-level ties with his Shi’ite-led government. He said Iraq was now a vastly different country from that under Saddam, who ruled Iraq with an iron fist for decades until his ouster in 2003 by U.S.-led forces. “Iraq today is different from the previous Iraq which assaulted its neighbours. Iraq … is ready to play a constructive role in security and stability in the region,” Maliki said at the start of the meeting. He urged neighbouring states to open embassies in Baghdad.
“It’s difficult for us to explain why diplomatic ties have not been resumed with Iraq. Many other foreign countries have kept diplomatic missions in Baghdad regardless of security considerations,” Maliki said.
No ambassador from a Sunni Arab nation has been stationed permanently in Baghdad since Egypt’s envoy was kidnapped and killed shortly after arriving in 2005. Visits by top officials from Arab states, which have been reluctant to extend full legitimacy to Iraq’s U.S.-backed government, are also rare.
By comparison, Iraq has growing ties with non-Arab Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has pushed Arab states to be more responsive on ties and debt relief, said Iraq was being reintegrated into the Arab neighbourhood. Some states had stepped forward to offer diplomatic representation in Baghdad, she told reporters without providing any specifics.
Promises have been made by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to open up embassies in Baghdad and the U.S. hope is that if regional powerhouse Riyadh announces firm plans and dates then others will follow.
The Kuwait meeting is a follow-on from gatherings of Iraq’s neighbours as well as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that were held in Turkey and Egypt last year.
Maliki said Iraq was still waiting for debt relief.
About $66.5 billion of Iraq’s $120.2 billion foreign debt has been forgiven, according to State Department estimates. Of the estimated $56 billion to $80 billion debt that remains, more than half is owed to Gulf countries, the department said.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, had agreed to create committees to study the question of reducing Iraq’s compensation payments imposed after the 1991 Gulf War.
Under U.N.-imposed peace terms after the Gulf War, Iraq must pay into a fund for compensation for invading and annexing Kuwait in 1990. The fund now receives 5 percent of Iraq’s oil income, and the largest group of claimants are from Kuwait.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, asked by reporters if he was disappointed there was not more tangible support for Iraq in terms of debt relief or diplomatic ties, said: “I think we have some commitments, but we have to be patient with our Arab brothers.”
A draft of a statement to be issued at the meeting urged the “maintaining or opening of diplomatic missions in Iraq”.
It also said participants “welcome the Iraqi government’s commitment to disarm and dismantle all militias and illegally armed groups, enforcing the rule of law, and ensuring the state’s monopoly on armed forces.”
Maliki’s security forces have been battling the Mehdi Army militia of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for the past month. The cleric has threatened an “open war” unless Maliki calls off a crackdown in Baghdad and southern Shi’ite cities.
The U.S. military said on Tuesday it had killed five militants overnight in an Apache helicopter strike and a battle involving an M1 tank, both in the cleric’s east Baghdad stronghold Sadr City. Since Sadr’s threat on Saturday U.S. forces say they have killed about 50 fighters in the capital. The two previous meetings of Iraq’s neighbours in Egypt and Turkey last year were dominated by tensions between the United States and Iran, which Washington accuses of stirring up violence in Iraq. Tehran denies the charges.
At a group photo at the meeting’s start, Rice was in the front row, four places away from Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. U.S. officials said they did not interact.