Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman walks with Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia April 17, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Following decades of estrangement Iraq is slowly returning to the Arab fold, thanks to a number of initiatives taken by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Egypt among others. The rift erupted when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain committed a war crime by invading Kuwait in August 1990, thus distancing himself from the rest of the Arab world and triggering an international crisis that led to the first Gulf war and his defeat and eviction.

The crisis led to the enforcement of tough UN sanctions on Iraq and to a growing US military presence in the Gulf region. Saddam’s defiance deepened regional rifts and weakened the Arab League even further. Internally, Saddam sought to consolidate his grip by crushing both the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south; thus inviting further US strikes.

But Iraq’s plight was only beginning. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, newly elected President George W. Bush turned his attention to Saddam. His administration built a case alleging that Iraq had an advanced structure of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that Saddam had connections with Al Qaida. Having received backing from the UN, the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003; an event whose reverberations can still be felt today.

The US committed a series of grave mistakes in Iraq, from disbanding the national army to writing a constitution that enforced a system of ethnic and religious quotas. Over the years, the Sunni minority would revolt and provide a safe haven to former Baath officers who would later form a base for extreme militant groups. One group in particular would evolve to become Daesh.

Meanwhile, Iran would use the chaos in Iraq to create alliances with Shia groups and parties. The US could do little to stem Iraq’s pivot towards Tehran. The Iranian influence would reach its height under former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki who did not hesitate to prompt sectarian clashes.

Daesh campaign

Under Maliki Iraq had become an Iranian vassal state thus distancing it further from its Arab surrounding. The situation would prompt Iraqi nationalists, both Sunni and Shiite, to resist Tehran’s overreach. Meanwhile, Daesh would use the chaos to take over more than a third of the country and extend its geographical grip over large swaths of Syrian territory.

The election of Haidar Al Abadi as prime minister of Iraq in 2014 would mark the slow start of the country’s return to its Arab fold. He was able to lead a costly but successful war on Daesh while taking steps to fight sectarian tensions, stamp out corruption and distance himself from Iran. But Iran was not about to lose its leverage in Iraq. It created the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), comprising mostly pro-Iran Shiites, allegedly to fight Daesh. But in the process the PMUs committed atrocities against Iraqis in liberated Sunni provinces. Al Abadi could do little to rein them in.

But Al Abadi was able to build bridges with Iraq’s Arab neighbours. His visit to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 2017 marked the beginning of a process of slow rehabilitation of Iraq. His successor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, has followed in his footsteps by attempting to balance Baghdad’s regional ties. Iraqi President Barham Saleh began his term by visiting the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt as well as Iran last year.

Arab response to these overtures has been extremely positive. The importance of limiting Iran’s influence in Iraq has not been missed by Arab leaders. Earlier this year Jordan’s King Abdullah paid what was described as a historic visit to Baghdad. Both Jordan and Iraq have signed strategic economic agreements in recent months.

Also Saudi Arabia took a major step by opening a consulate in Baghdad for the first time in 30 years. It also announced a one-billion-dollar aid package for Iraq signalling a new phase in bilateral ties. Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi visited Riyadh to attend the signing of 13 new agreements between the two countries.

It goes without saying that bringing Iraq back to the Arab fold represents a major geopolitical feat that promises to help stabilise the region.

A more stable Iraq may be able to play a positive role in initiating a dialogue between Iran and its Arab neighbours. While the timing may not be right at this stage, given Tehran’s continued meddling in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria and its sectarian agenda, the crisis will have to end through political means.

Meanwhile, Arab countries should not waver from efforts to build bridges with Iraq, a country whose stability will reflect on the entire region.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.