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Iraq: Can Baghdad Protect Foreign Missions?

  • Kathleen Ridolfo --> Ihab al-Sharif The insurgency in Iraq has been targeting diplomats in Baghdad in recent weeks, in an apparent attempt to frighten Arab and Muslim countries from establishing diplomatic relations with the interim government. The tactic is another way in which anti-government forces are doing all they can to undermine Iraq's progress in areas such as reconstruction, security, and political development.

Egyptian Ambassador-designate Ihab al-Sharif was kidnapped in Baghdad on 2 July by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn. The group on 7 July claimed it had executed al-Sharif, a report that was subsequently confirmed by Egyptian authorities, although his body has not been recovered.

On 5 July, Pakistani and Bahraini ambassadors to Iraq were attacked in separate incidents in Baghdad. Pakistani Ambassador Muhammad Yunis Khan escaped unharmed when gunmen in two vehicles fired on his convoy in the Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad, prompting Khan to relocate to Jordan. Bahrain's top diplomat in Baghdad was wounded in a separate attack in the same neighborhood, which houses a number of embassies, when gunmen fired at his vehicle.

These incidents were clearly meant to send a message to all Arab and Muslim states: Those who forge relations with the transitional Iraqi government will be targeted by Al-Qaeda. This message, while not new, seeks to stem progress made by the transitional Iraqi government in recent weeks in terms of persuading Arab and Muslim nations to reopen embassies and missions in Baghdad.

Those nations had, since the toppling of the Hussein regime, declined by and large to return to Iraq under the pretext that the interim Iraqi government – the current government's predecessor – was illegitimate. January's national elections changed all that, as the transitional Iraqi government pointed out to participating states at the June donor conference in Brussels (see Brussels Conference Is All Support, Little Actione).

Al-Zarqawi's tactic is part of an ideology that has routinely sought to stem any progress in the post-Hussein era, whether it be in the fields of reconstruction, security, or political development.

Incident Sows Seeds Of Distrust

Al-Sharif's abduction and killing enforces an underlying mistrust among Arab states and Iraq's Shi'ite-led government. Soon after al-Sharif's abduction, some Iraqi officials -- including Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's spokesman, Laith Kubba -- suggested that al-Sharif might have been attempting to establish relations with insurgents when he was snatched.

Foreign Minister al-Zebari attempted to cushion the allegation following similar statements by Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who alleged "that some foreign ambassadors made contacts with some parties." "We don't believe that the [Egyptian] ambassador[-designate] or any other ambassador had any contacts with forces that use arms, violence, terrorism, and murder," said Al-Zebari told journalists on 11 July, RFI reported.
Most Arab states have done little more than pay lip service in their condemnation of terrorism in Iraq, preferring instead to propagate the view that the Iraqi government needs to do more to bring Sunni Arabs into the political process.

Most Arab states have done little more than pay lip service in their condemnation of terrorism in Iraq, preferring instead to propagate the view that the Iraqi government needs to do more to bring Sunni Arabs into the political process. The position of these Arab states is rooted partly in an Arab nationalist mentality that is still reflected today across the Arab world's Sunni-led governments -- one that has never shown much regard for Iraq's Shi'ite population, which is viewed as more closely linked to Iran than the Arab world. Moreover, Arab states recognize the negative impact the occupation of Iraq has had on Arab popular opinion on Iraq.

Arab states also view the uprooting of the Hussein regime in Iraq and the prospect of the region's first Arab democracy as a threat to the stability of their own regimes, which maintain order -- to varying degrees -- much the same as Hussein did: through strong security apparatuses and governments that afford little political freedom to their peoples.

Many Arab governments also recognize the Islamist threat and many fear the spread of terrorism by Sunni Islamists to their own countries, where Islamists have been afforded little, if any, political space historically. These governments understand the havoc that could be wrought by Islamists at home.

Iraqi Government Scrambles To Ensure Safety

The killing of al-Sharif has prompted the transitional government to take action to prevent a possible setback in attempts to normalize relations with Arab and Islamic states.

But al-Sharif's abduction and killing evoked a predictable response from Egypt. Officials there first contended the incident would not affect its relations or diplomatic presence in Baghdad, but soon after announced that that Cairo will scale down its embassy staff. It appears that a new ambassador will not be heading to Iraq anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Jordan, which also vowed in Brussels to send a new ambassador to Iraq, has said it intends to keep its commitment, although it remains unclear when the Jordanian ambassador might arrive in Baghdad. Iraqi Foreign Minister al-Zebari told reporters at an 11 July press briefing in Baghdad that Yemen and Morocco have named new ambassadors to Iraq, while Syria and the Arab League remain intent on doing so, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported.

The incidents involving the Egyptian, Pakistani, and Bahraini diplomats prompted the Iraqi interim government -- which initially contended that foreign diplomats hadn't taken the necessary security precautions -- to offer new protections to ensure the security of foreign diplomats working in Iraq.

Al-Zebari told members of the diplomatic corps in Baghdad on 11 July that the Foreign and Interior ministries have devised a new security plan, including the establishment of a special hotline that would give embassies and diplomats direct access to the Interior Ministry, which is ultimately responsible for security.

"No doubt, we too have responsibilities. The Iraqi government has security responsibilities under international law. It must guarantee protection and security for the diplomats and the embassies and missions here in Baghdad," al-Zebari told a press briefing following the meeting.

He added that the Iraqi government is capable of protecting all embassies, ambassadors, and diplomats in Baghdad "without depending on any other quarter." There are currently 45 embassies and missions operating in Iraq, al-Zebari said.

"Many of these embassies are in the protected Green Zone," he said. "As for the ones outside the zone, we believe that the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry have the capabilities to guarantee the necessary protection."

He asked, however, that embassies and foreign missions alert the Iraqi government of any additional security needs.

See also:

Al-Qaeda Says It Has Killed Egyptian Envoy

Fact Box: Foreign Missions In Iraq