BAGHDAD – Arab heads of state and senior officials from the region including archenemies Iran and Saudi Arabia held a rare meeting Saturday at a conference hosted by Iraq. The meeting is aimed at easing Mideast tensions and underscored the Arab country’s new role as mediator.
French President Emmanuel Macron also attended the Baghdad meeting, hailing it as a major boost for Iraq and its leadership. 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.
On Saturday, Iraqi leaders were on hand at Baghdad International Airport to receive the red carpet arrivals. They included Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. It was the first official visit to Iraq by the Qatari emir, whose country’s ties with Saudi Arabia are also fraught with tensions. Relations have improved recently since a declaration was signed with the kingdom and other Arab Gulf states to ease a years-long rift.
Among the participants were also the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose rivalry over regional supremacy has often played out to deadly consequences in Iraq and other countries across the region, including Yemen and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia was represented by its foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, and Iran with its foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
It was not immediately clear if the two ministers held a meeting on the sidelines. Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hassan avoided a question as to whether they did, saying only: “These meetings in fact began in Iraq, and in Baghdad, and these meetings are continuing, and will continue."
"What we understood from the two sides, or the parties, is a great and wide desire to reach positive results to solve the outstanding problems between the two countries,” he added.
The high-level meeting in Baghdad sent a message of Arab solidarity with Iraq, which has increasingly been pulled into Iran’s orbit in recent years.
“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.”
Iraqi special forces deployed in Baghdad, particularly around the Green Zone, seat of the Iraqi government, where the meeting was held. Participants were expected to discuss a regional water crisis, the war in Yemen and a severe economic and political crisis in Lebanon that has brought the country to the point of collapse.
Lebanon, which has been without a functional government for the past year, and Syria, which has been suspended from the Arab League since 2011, were not represented at the meeting.
Macron, whose country is co-organizing the meeting, described Saturday’s meeting as “historic,” showcasing Iraq’s return to stability following the ruinous war against the Islamic State group, which was defeated in 2017.
Sunday’s meeting was a chance for Iraqi leaders to underscore their 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, which for years has been a headline for war and conflicts, is hosting leaders and representatives of the region today to affirm their support for Iraqi sovereignty and prosperity,” said President Barham Salih.
Earlier this year, Iraq hosted several rounds of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, with mid-level officials discussing issues related to Yemen and Lebanon, according to Iraqi officials.
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 Houthis from Yemen.
Saudi Arabia has sought talks with Iran as the kingdom tries to end its years-long war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Tehran, meanwhile, appears to have calculated that a gradual detente with Riyadh, a longtime U.S. ally, will work in its favor during renewed nuclear talks with Washington and world powers.
An Iraqi government official had 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 create a political atmosphere for resolving outstanding problems.
Iraq’s message at the summit is that it stands at the same distance from all sides, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.
After decades of conflict, Iraq is seeking to reclaim a leadership role and status in the Arab world with a centrist policy and a determination among the country’s top leaders to maintain good relations with both Iran and the United States and its regional allies.
The Shiite-majority country lies on the fault line between Shiite Iran and the mostly Sunni Arab world, led by powerhouse Saudi Arabia, and has long been a theater in which Saudi-Iran rivalry for regional supremacy played out.
Karam reported from Beirut.