Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in his keynote speech, called on neighboring states to send their ambassadors back to Baghdad, and to forgive Iraq's massive foreign debt. He also said he can't understand why his government has not had more support from Arab states, considering it replaced the notorious dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
He said a new Iraq is emerging, one in which unity is managing to prevail over factionalism. He also called for another round of debt forgiveness for his country, which, with a narrow income base, faces a mountain of foreign debt estimated as high as $80 billion.
His speech was basically an appeal for support from Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, which now have no ambassador-level diplomatic representation in Baghdad. Kuwait set the ball rolling in the build-up to the meeting by announcing that it wants to reopen an embassy in Iraq for the first time since Hussein invaded the emirate in 1990.
Process 'Moving Forward'
Among those listening to al-Maliki's speech was U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who on April 21 at a meeting in Bahrain raised the same issues with officials of the Gulf Arab states. She sounded optimistic when she emerged from the Bahrain meeting.
"I would only add that a number of countries around the table talked about their desire to have permanent representatives in Iraq and the necessary arrangements that would need to be made, and [Iraqi] Foreign Minister [Hoshyar] Zebari agreed to take certain inquiries that countries have about how that process might move forward," Rice said. "And so I do believe that it is a process that is moving forward."
However, she did not secure any definite commitments for the Sunni states to reopen their embassies or provide debt relief. The French news agency AFP quoted an unnamed U.S. official traveling with Rice as saying that Iraq's Arab neighbors remain suspicious of the al-Maliki government, which is seen as weak and a U.S. creation.
The Sunnis feel they have several reasons to be cautious about throwing in their lot with al-Malaki's government and giving it legitimacy. One is that it could fall apart as soon as U.S. support is absent; and two, it is Shi'ite-dominated, and Shi'ite-led Iran is seen as gaining influence over Baghdad. The last thing the Sunni states want is to see an extension of Iranian Shi'ite power in the region, exercised through Iraq, which in the previous era was run by the minority Sunnis.
Rice sought to allay these fears in remarks to journalists after she met al-Maliki in Baghdad on April 20. She said there is a significant coming together of centrist elements in the Iraqi political scene, involving Sunnis, Kurds, and Shi'a. She pointed to the major offensives al-Maliki has launched in the last month against radical Shi'ite militias as evidence of his ability to control developments in Iraq.