Baghdad's efforts to strengthen its links to the Gulf Arab states picked up momentum this week with the visit of the Iraqi foreign minister to Bahrain. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the Iraqi drive could add urgency to a U.S. proposal for smarter sanctions against Iraq now on hold at the United Nations.
Prague, 17 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At first glance, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri's visit this week to Bahrain seems barely newsworthy -- that is, to judge by the official Bahraini description of it.
After Sabri met on 15 January with the Gulf Arab state's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Bahrain's official BNA news agency said only that the talks "covered the latest developments on the Arab and international scenes."
And, BNA said, the Bahrain government used the occasion to reiterate the need for "Iraq to cooperate with the UN and conform with the resolutions of the Security Council."
But the official statements do little to suggest the political importance of Sabri's trip, which is the first by such a high-level Iraqi official to Bahrain in many years.
Sabri's trip is the latest in a gradually escalating series of steps by Iraq to develop stronger diplomatic and trading ties with Bahrain amid the continuing United Nations sanctions on Baghdad. The state visit follows Baghdad's appointment last year of its first ambassador to Bahrain since the two states broke ties over the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990. The ambassador's appointment, in turn, comes after the two states in late 1999 re-opened a commercial sea link that had been closed for almost a decade.
But if Bahrain's official news agency downplayed Sabri's trip by providing few details, Iraq -- by contrast -- is attaching considerable public importance to it.
Sabri told Iraq's official al-Shabab Television before leaving Baghdad that "our visit to Bahrain comes within growing relations between Iraq and the Gulf Arab Cooperation Council (GCC) members." The GCC comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
At the same time, AFP quotes an Iraqi newspaper (unidentified) as reporting last week that Iraq and Bahrain are discussing the possibility of signing a free-trade accord within three months. That report has not been independently confirmed.
The Iraqi statements appear to cast Sabri's trip as part of a progressive Iraqi effort to build its relations with the GCC states, which joined the international alliance that drove Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991. So far, that initiative has seen Iraq restore diplomatic ties with all GCC members except Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The drive also has seen several GCC states -- in addition to Bahrain -- step up their trade with Iraq within the framework of the UN's oil-for-food program.
The UAE began a ferry service from Dubai to Iraq with the UN's permission in 1998. By late last year, the ferry service was reported to be carrying 1,500 passengers a week. As a result, Iraqi officials said last summer they were ready to set up a joint transport, trade, and tourism company with the UAE with capital of some 3 million euros ($2.6 million).
Qatar, too, has renewed its sea links with Iraq and, as trade grows, has called increasingly for international dialogue with Iraq aimed at lifting the UN sanctions. Those calls are opposed by GCC partners Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which are against talks with the government of Saddam Hussein.
Some analysts say the continuing efforts by Baghdad to build good economic and political ties with Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE may give a new sense of urgency to Washington's proposals to place smarter sanctions on Iraq.
Gerd Nonneman is a Gulf expert at the Center for Defense and International Security Studies in Lancaster, England. He says Baghdad hopes that by building its regional commercial ties it can increase pressure against the sanctions regime.
Nonneman says that, so far, the Iraqi effort has not been successful in undermining the GCC states' official cooperation with the sanctions. But it may be helping to build sufficient popular resentment to the sanctions to help ease smuggling, something the U.S. smart sanctions proposal is designed to stop.
"The Iraqi calculation [in building ties to Gulf states] has always been, 'Look, if we do this gradually, they will start supporting lifting of sanctions and so on.' But in fact, by and large, all of these states have kept to the international consensus [of officially observing the sanctions regime]."
He continues: "It all adds up to notching up the pressure against the present sanctions regime. But a properly designed sanctions system, I think, would probably have more of a chance to be implemented properly than the current system. There are many more loopholes now and, let's say, a greater willingness to close one's eyes occasionally when something is going through because there is an unease with the overall state of the [current] sanctions."
Analysts say the GCC members' ties to Washington are strong because they look to the U.S. -- as well as to other Western states -- for their military security. But even as the Gulf states continue to observe the current sanctions regime, smuggling of fuel in the region has helped to seriously undermine the sanctions' effectiveness.
The Iraqi regime is believed to earn $1.5 billion a year from oil smuggling and oil sales outside UN controls. It depends on those revenues to insulate itself -- though not the Iraqi population -- from the sanctions. The oil is reported to be smuggled or sold outside UN controls through Syria, Turkey, and Jordan, as well as by ship down the Gulf.
Washington has proposed a smarter sanctions regime that would tighten controls over Iraq's ability to smuggle oil. In exchange, the smart sanctions proposal would simplify procedures for Baghdad to import a wider range of civilian-use goods under the UN-approved oil-for-food program.
The discussion of smart sanctions at the UN is postponed until this summer after the U.S. and Russia -- which has opposed the proposal -- agreed last year to conclude talks on any changes to the sanctions regime by 1 June.