The Coming Out: Can Iraq Finally Make Friends With Its Neighbors?

A summit of regional leaders in Baghdad will provide Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with a much-needed opening.

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Iraqi PM Maliki, far left, with the leaders of Qatar, Syria, Sudan, Saudi Arabi, and Tunisia (now deposed) / Reuters

Next week, the Arab League will hold its annual summit in Baghdad. It is a day a great many Iraqis have long awaited. For years, Iraqis hoped to host the Arab League in their liberated capital as a sign to the world that Iraq was back--that it had reemerged from Saddam Hussein's tyranny and a brutal civil war as a new Iraq, stronger, freer, and better than it had been. And for years, the other Arab states denied it. They cited the violence, ethno-sectarian divisions, unsettled politics and the American occupation. Now, finally, Baghdad will get its due.

For Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki it is a great triumph, a tremendous opportunity and a grave threat all rolled into one.

Although many Iraqis long for this sign of reacceptance into the Arab world, it is especially important for Maliki that he be able to say that he fulfilled the dream. Maliki, of course, is a Shia--and not just a Shia but also a member of a Shiite Islamist party who has been personally disdained and excoriated by the Sunni Arab world for most of his time in office. Indeed, for many years, most of the other Arab states refused to resume normal relations with Iraq explicitly because he was its prime minister. Thus, for Maliki, the Arab League's willingness to come to Iraq under his premiership is an immense personal victory, a signal to the Iraqi people that he, personally, has been accepted by the other (Sunni) Arab heads of state as the rightful and respected leader of Iraq.

As a result, it is all the more imperative for him that the summit go well, both for Iraq and for him personally. If it goes well, not only will he buttress his sagging popularity with the Iraqi street, he also will likely be able to parlay it into improved trade relations with the rest of the region, more direct foreign investment from the wealthy Gulf states and greater Arab diplomatic support for Iraq's international causes--particularly the lifting of the last UN sanctions under which Iraq has labored since the days of Saddam. If Maliki is truly accepted by the other members of the Arab League, it could mean significant material benefits for Iraq that would further reinforce his popularity and power.

The Syrian Problem

Unfortunately for Maliki, that coin has two sides, and on the ugly underside is the head of Bashar al-Assad. The crisis over Syria is coming at the worst possible time for Maliki. As a Shia Arab, he seems to have considerable affinity for the Shiite Arab regime of the Assads in Damascus. Moreover, although Maliki distrusts and dislikes the Iranians, he is in no position to cross them, and the Iranians have been backing the Assads to the hilt. Iran wields very significant influence in Iraq and ultimately was responsible (with some American assistance) for forging the coalition that kept Maliki in power after the 2010 elections. Whenever the Sunni Arab states ostracized his government, it was Tehran that succored it, and Maliki likely believes that when all else fails, he can count on the Iranians to help him in a way that the Sunni Arab states probably never will. Not surprisingly, Iraq has been extremely forgiving of Damascus's sins and consistently opposed harsh measures intended to bring about the Syrian regime's downfall.

Presented by

Kenneth M. Pollack, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and the Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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