Iraq hosted a regional conference on Saturday aimed at easing tensions in the Middle East while emphasising the Arab country’s new role as a mediator.
Among the attendees were archenemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose rivalry has often played out in Iraq and other countries, including Yemen and Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia said it would be represented by its foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian was also in the Iraqi capital.
“This summit marks the return of Iraq as a pivotal player in the region,” said political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari, who heads the Iraqi Political Thinking Center in Baghdad. “Having rival parties be seated at the same table is a significant step in that direction.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and Jordan’s King Abdullah II arrived to participate, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron.
France co-organised the meeting, which is expected to discuss a potentially devastating regional water crisis, the war in Yemen, and the severe economic and political situation in Lebanon that has brought the country to the point of collapse.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani arrived in Baghdad for the summit, and was greeted by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the airport. It was the first official visit to Iraq by the Qatari leader.
The meeting is a chance for al-Kadhimi to showcase his recent efforts to portray Iraq as a neutral mediator in the region’s crises and re-engage with the world after decades of conflict.
Iraq seeks to play a “unifying role” to tackle crises shaking the region, sources close to al-Kadhimi say.
Iraqi special forces deployed in Baghdad, particularly around the Green Zone, which houses foreign embassies and is the seat of the Iraqi government.
The high-level summit meeting in Baghdad is a major boost for Iraq and its top leadership, sending a message of Arab solidarity with the country, which has increasingly been pulled into Iran’s orbit in recent years.
The country had been largely shunned by Arab leaders for the past few decades because of security concerns amid back-to-back wars and internal unrest, its airport frequently attacked with rockets by insurgents.
Earlier this year, Iraq hosted several rounds of direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with mid-level officials discussing issues related to Yemen and Lebanon. The talks signalled a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that often spilled into neighbouring countries and at least one still-raging war in Yemen.
The talks, while significant, fell short of a breakthrough in relations given the deep strains, historic rivalry and continued sporadic attacks on Saudi oil targets by Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen.
There has been talk, however, of the potential for Saudi Arabia to reopen its embassy in Tehran, which was ransacked and shuttered following outrage over the execution of a prominent Saudi Shia cleric in early 2016.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates have called for any nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran to also address its ballistic missile programme and support for militias.
An Iraqi government official told The Associated Press he anticipated Saudi and Iranian officials would hold talks on the sidelines of Saturday’s meetings. He said the aim was to bring opponents to the same table and create a political atmosphere for resolving outstanding problems.
Iranian officials have said they are focused more on the outcome of talks in Vienna with Western powers over Iran’s nuclear programme and international sanctions.
“The meeting in Iraq … is only focused on Iraq and how the regional countries can cooperate to help Iraq,” an Iranian official told Reuters news agency ahead of the Baghdad summit.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Baghdad, said the outcome of the summit will depend on the “closed-door session” held later on Saturday.
“Agreements, or memorandums of understanding, might be signed by the stakeholders today,” Abdelwahed said.
“According to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq is hoping to strengthen its ties with France, especially in areas like energy, oil, electricity, infrastructure,” he added.
Macron, following a meeting with al-Kadhimi, described Saturday’s meeting as “historic”, showcasing Iraq’s return to stability following the ruinous war against the armed group ISIL (ISIS).
Meanwhile, an ISIL group affiliate, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), claimed a suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday that killed scores of people, including 13 US army members.
The attack has revived global concerns the armed group, which seized swaths of Syria and Iraq before being routed from both countries, is emerging anew in the region, analysts said.
The blast came during the final days of US-led evacuations from Afghanistan after the Taliban’s lightning takeover.
“These events show that it has become more urgent than ever to back the political process in Iraq and involve its neighbours,” a source close to Macron said.
“A solution to security threats in the region, including Daesh [ISIL], depends on a stable, sovereign and prosperous Iraq.”
A decade after the 2003 US-led invasion that overthrew former longtime ruler Saddam Hussein, ISIL in June 2014 announced a so-called “caliphate” in territory seized in Syria and Iraq, routing the badly prepared Iraqi army without a fight and seizing almost one-third of the country.
France was part of a US-led coalition established to battle the armed group’s fighters. Though Iraq declared ISIL territorially defeated in December 2017, it still retains sleeper cells and continues to claim bloody attacks.
One of the deadliest was a July bombing that ripped through a crowded Baghdad market, killing at least 30 people on the eve of a key Muslim holiday.
ISIL making ‘strides’
According to Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, ISIL “still has access to tens of millions of dollars and will likely continue to rebuild its network throughout Iraq and Syria”.
“[Its] primary goal at the moment is to have its affiliates maintain momentum until it can sufficiently rebuild its core in the Levant,” Clarke said. “[ISIL] affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa and now Afghanistan will have the opportunity to make strides in the coming year.”
In July, President Joe Biden said US combat operations in Iraq would end this year, but US soldiers would continue to train, advise and support the country’s military in the fight against ISIL.
Washington currently has 2,500 troops deployed to Iraq.
Rasha al-Aqeedi, senior analyst at Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, said coalition forces believed Iraq’s security personnel could prevent another ISIL advance.
“Maybe they’re not ideal, but they’re good enough for America to leave the country believing that Iraq is not going to live through another 2014,” she said.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES