BAGHDAD (Dispatches) — Arab heads of state and senior officials from the region including Iran and Saudi Arabia met Saturday at a conference hosted by Iraq to ease Mideast tensions and emphasize the Arab country’s new role as mediator.
French President Emmanuel Macron also attended the Baghdad meeting, hailed 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 Persian Arab Gulf states to ease a years-long rift.
Among the participants were also the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was represented by its foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, and Iran with its foreign minister, Hussein Amir-Abdollahian.
The high-level meeting sent a message of regional solidarity with Iraq, which is emerging from years of war, including a battle against takfiri terrorists such as Daesh, with key support from Iran.
“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.
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 Saudi Arabia and Iran, with mid-level officials discussing issues related to Yemen and Lebanon, according to Iraqi officials.
There has been talk of the potential for Saudi Arabia to reopen its embassy in Tehran, which was shuttered following outrage over the execution of a prominent Saudi Shia cleric in early 2016.
Saudi Arabia has sought talks with Iran as the kingdom tries to end its years-long war in Yemen.
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 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 Iran and other countries.
Iran’s new foreign minister reaffirmed the need for sustainable regional security with the participation of the regional countries, stressing there will be no security as long as foreign countries interfered in the Middle East.
“What we need more than ever today is ‘sustainable regional security’ with the participation of the countries of the region,” which can materialize through using economic resources towards promoting peace and development, Amir-Abdollahian said.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has always underlined the need for the realization of peace through regional dialogue and negotiation, and hopes that the countries of the region will reach the joint understanding that security will be achieved only through mutual trust, reliance on national capabilities, strengthening relations and good neighborliness as well as non-interference of foreign countries,” he added.
Amir-Abdollahian praised Iraq’s
efforts to contribute to regional cooperation and pledged Iran’s support for its neighbor to that goal.
The minister praised resistance of the Iraqi people, government and religious leaders in combating terrorist groups, including Daesh, as he hit out at the U.S. for fomenting insecurity in the region and assassinating top anti-terror commanders Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani and Iraq’s Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.
Amir-Abdollahian stressed that the United States will not go unpunished for its terrorist act, vowing to pursue legal actions against those behind the assassination.
“The U.S. government cannot escape the consequences of this act, and the perpetrators and directors of this terrorist act must be punished and brought to justice for their action,” he said.
“The U.S. government must be held accountable, even though the previous administration committed the crime,” he added.
He also voiced Iran’s support for the Iraqi government and people and the Arab country’s decision on withdrawal of foreign troops and holding early elections.