United Arab Emirates to be first Gulf state to appoint ambassador to Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The United Arab Emirates will be the first Gulf Arab nation to open an embassy in Iraq since the war and subsequent American occupation began five years ago, its foreign minister announced Thursday.

Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, the first Gulf Arab foreign minister to visit Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion, promised to name an ambassador this week.

Iraq has been isolated from its mostly Sunni Arab neighbors since violence skyrocketed and the influence of Shiite Iran became more pronounced. The United States has been urging Sunni Arab nations, including key ally Saudi Arabia, to upgrade relations with Iraq's Shiite-led government to counter Iranian influence.

But the Gulf kingdoms have been hesitant because of Iraq's close relationship with Iran.

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino described the UAE decision as "very exciting" because of what it says about Iraq's improving relationship with its neighbors. "We hope other countries would follow suit soon," she said.

Iran has had an active embassy in Iraq since 2003 and provided political and economic support to the government. Tehran has also been accused of funding, training and supplying weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq.

UAE's diplomatic move is a small but a symbolic step to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold. As more Arab embassies open in Iraq, pressure is expected build on Iraq's government to move more Sunnis — ousted after the fall of Saddam Hussein — back into security and government posts.

Since an Egyptian envoy to Iraq was kidnapped and killed in 2005 by Sunni extremists, there have been no Arab ambassadors stationed inside Iraq.

"Iraq needs to be encouraged by its brothers," Nahyan said at a press conference. "We must be clear that Iraq suffered from lack of encouragement from its brotherly nations during the last years."

Other Arab embassies are expected to follow, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain, said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. All of the nations are expected to send delegations to examine the security situation and recommend opening embassies in Iraq.

"There are dangers in the diplomatic work that must be faced," Nahyan said. "Yes, there are risks in Baghdad, but these risks deserve to be faced as all the citizens in Baghdad face them. We see a lot of hope in Iraqis."

Analysts say that the opening of the UAE embassy would be an example to other Gulf nations to extend a diplomatic hand to Iraq. With Sunni perception that Iraq's Shiite-led government tilts towards Iran, the Gulf states will expect disenfranchised Sunnis would be more equitably treated. There are more than 91,000 paid members of U.S.-backed mostly Sunni militias that the United States would like to see absorbed into the security forces and other government jobs.

"It's a signal more could follow if the Gulf States quid pro quo, see something in return," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group, an international think tank based in Brussels, Belgium. "They want these guys to be integrated back into the government structures, that's the only way to heal the rift between Sunnis and Shiites. ...The Gulf States are watching that."

Since the U.S.-led invasion, the Iraqi government has been dominated by the Shiite majority and Kurdish militia. Both the foreign minister and the president of Iraq are Kurds, while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and one of the vice presidents are Shiite. After Saddam Hussein's ouster, Sunnis lost power, and many turned to violence. By restoring diplomatic missions in Iraq, Gulf nations hope to see Iraq's Shiite prime minister reach out to the Sunnis who have pulled their ministers from the government and have yet to return.

"Of course they will be accused of having an agenda, which is to restore Sunni power in Iraq," Hiltermann said. "Maybe they do harbor these dreams. It's a process where there is no trust. What we really need to see is something concrete from the Maliki government."