Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Iraq Tries to Prove Autonomy, and Makes Inroads

By ALISSA J. RUBIN BAGHDAD — With the Americans leaving and security improved, the Iraqi government has been on a nonstop campaign to convince the world that it is a sovereign state, a client neither of the United States nor of Iran. The country’s emerging foreign policy was outlined in a speech that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki gave two weeks ago to the Arab League conference in Doha, Qatar, underscoring Iraq’s Arab and Muslim identity, signaling that it is not following in the secular footsteps of the United States. “Iraq’s Arab and Islamic identity and its unity and sovereignty are red lines that cannot be crossed and are not subject to compromise,” Mr. Maliki said in his address to the 22-member body. But with 130,000 American soldiers still on Iraqi soil and American advisers embedded in almost every Iraqi security institution, his message remains a tough sell — although easier than it was a even a year ago, before it became clear that the Americans would withdraw. “How do you represent a country under foreign occupation?” asked Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister. “It was an extreme challenge, an uphill challenge.” In most of the Middle East, being too close to the Americans earns leaders the scorn of Arabs who view the United States as a heavy-handed ally of Israel, a colonialist empire builder and anti-Muslim. In Europe, where many countries opposed the American invasion, the continuing presence of American soldiers coupled with Iraq’s unstable security situation meant that until recently many countries remained skeptical of Iraq’s independence. It was not until last fall, when the United States announced a sure withdrawal and pledged no permanent bases in Iraq, that countries and international organizations began committing in any numbers to opening embassies and making official visits, Mr. Zebari said. Forty countries now have ambassadors or chargés d’affaires in Baghdad, along with 12 international agencies, including the United Nations and the Red Cross. In February, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France made the first visit of a French leader to the country since the 2003 invasion, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier became the first German foreign minister to visit Baghdad in 22 years. Both countries had opposed the American invasion, but now seem ready to forge strong ties with Baghdad. In an effort to prove its autonomy, Iraq has invited leaders from Syria and Iran to open embassies, although those countries have an antagonistic relationship with the United States, and Iraq has also reached out to the United States’ global competitors, China and Russia. “They are trying to prove they are independent of the United States and they are trying to draw a clear foreign policy, and we can see other countries are beginning to take Iraq seriously,” said Mustapha Alani, director of defense studies at the Gulf Research Center, an independent group in the United Arab Emirates. Harder for Iraq to demonstrate to the world is that it is free of Iranian influence. There are “some doubts in the minds and hearts of some of the Arab countries,” Mr. Zebari said. The country that harbors the greatest uncertainty is Saudi Arabia, one of Iraq’s most powerful neighbors. The Saudis have yet to open an embassy in Baghdad despite repeated invitations and cajoling. Although the Saudis cite security as the reason for hesitating, the larger reason is that they have yet to trust Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which they fear will favor Iran or even become an Iranian satellite. The Saudis are Sunnis, the Iranians are Shiites, and long before modern borders were drawn, the Arabs and Persians were rivals, along with the Ottomans, for regional hegemony and sought to control the territory that now makes up Iraq. Prince Turki al-Faisal, former director of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador to the United States, said at a conference in Amman, Jordan, on Saturday that Saudi Arabia had told the United States previously that when it brought a Shiite-dominated government to power after the 2003 invasion, it “handed Iraq to Iran on a golden plate,” according to the Saudi daily newspaper Al Watan. Iran’s influence is indisputable. With a $4 billion balance of trade, it is Iraq’s second-largest trading partner, after Turkey. It helps to finance several of Iraq’s Shiite political parties and sends millions of religious tourists to Iraq’s shrines every year. Mr. Zebari, well aware of Iran’s effort to wield its influence in Iraq, said he has been warning the Saudis lately that if they do not help fill the vacuum as the Americans pull back, then the Iranians will. “We are saying to them, they should be here: ‘Why do you complain about expanding influence?’ ” Mr. Zebari said. “They are here and you are not.” Iran was the first country to recognize Iraq after the American invasion, and it has shrewdly reached out to politicians from all the major sects and ethnicities. With ties to the most powerful politicians, it has been able to maneuver behind the scenes, influencing Iraq’s internal politics and sometimes derailing government policy. “We’ve managed to conduct our relationship with them with a struggle; politically, officially,” Mr. Zebari said. “There are visits; too many visits on both sides,” he said. “Every week there is a delegation either here by the Iranians or by Iraqi delegations to Iran. Iran has a lot of soft power and they are using it very smartly.” Pulled between Iran and the Arab world, Iraq appears likely to become a “buffer state,” said Joost Hiltermann, the senior Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group, a research organization based in Washington and Brussels. The country’s safety net, whether Iraqis like it or not, is likely to remain the United States. “They will need to distance themselves from the United States publicly,” Mr. Hiltermann said. “But at the same time they will need to keep very close connections with them. They need them for security. They will need to juggle all the time.”

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