Arab states warm to Iraqi council

A delegation from the 22-state Arab League visited Iraq for the first time this week, signaling improving relations.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

They groused that the US invasion of Iraq was a violation of international law and their secretary general warned that the US might be opening the "door to hell" by alienating its member states.

But that was back during the April invasion. This week the 22-state Arab League - so dismayed and angry at the US last spring that it seemed meaningful cooperation on Iraq wasn't possible - signaled a change in attitude by sending its first official delegation to the troubled country.

"It's much later than we hoped, but better late than never," says Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a member of the US-appointed Governing Council. "They've come to get to know us better and to be involved with the new Iraq. We have too many resources and too much cultural relevance to the Arab world to be ignored."

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Though the road promises to remain bumpy, the visit of the delegation led by the league's assistant secretary general Ahmed bin Helli is an early Christmas present for the US, capping a month of good news that's included the capture of Saddam Hussein and the arrest of dozens of insurgents.

For many months, it appeared the Arab League wouldn't work with the Governing Council, dismissed by many in the Arab world as US stooges. But a confluence of factors, ranging from US military successes against insurgents to a growing reputation for independence among the council has changed that tune. The shift appears to go beyond the Arab world.

On Tuesday, the European Union contributed $9.9 million to an internationally managed trust fund for Iraqi reconstruction. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly told visiting members of the Governing Council that Moscow would write off 65 percent of the $8 billion that Baghdad owes its largest creditor.

Closer relations with key neighbors won't guarantee Iraqi stability or a faster American withdrawal, something that was brought home by a roadside bomb that killed three American soldiers north of Baghdad on Wednesday afternoon. But analysts say it will make the job easier.

"The Governing Council have managed to prove themselves to most of the Arab states - each step towards transferring authority to Iraqis has increased the confidence of our neighbors,'' says Saad Hawki Tawfik, an expert in international relations at Baghdad University. "For the US, there's been slow progress on security, on the one hand, and pressure for cooperation, on the other."

Some of the fruits of better relations are already being seen. Acting Governing Council head Abdel Aziz al-Hakim told reporters on Sunday after meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad that he'd won Syria's agreement to do more to prevent militants from crossing into Iraq from that country.

The US has repeatedly asserted that Islamist fighters have been entering Iraq over the Syrian border. But now, Syria "is cooperating with us to stop the terrorism [and] the terrorist groups," Mr. Hakim said.

To be sure, the rhetoric of the Arab states remains critical of the US occupation and they're avoiding as much as they can the appearance of working with the American occupiers. Initially, they refused to give the Governing Council a seat at the league's table.

But their deeds indicate a growing awareness that their best interests are served by engaging in a process that's going to go on, with or without them.

While here, Mr. bin Helli's delegation met with Moqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand Shiite cleric and critic of the US occupation. After the meeting, Mr. Sadr told reporters that he hoped the Arab League would "reinforce it's rejection of the American occupation." Bin Helli's comments to reporters were more measured, and he referred to "the political process as the country moves towards sovereignty." Bin Helli also met with Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric and a political moderate. Bin Helli told reporters later that Ayatollah Sistani had asked the Arab League to help Iraq's transition towards democracy.

While the occupation may not be going as well as US war planners had expected, it is going much better than some of Iraq's Arab neighbors had publicly hoped. Some said an occupied Iraq could erupt into a civil war or a much hotter insurgency that would have made the US think twice about future invasions or lead to an early pull-back.

Instead, it has increasingly looked like the US will be leaving on its own terms. "The Arab League has come to realize that their interests are better served by engaging the Governing Council, because that's the only game in town,'' says Hafadh Humadi al-Dulami, an Iraqi political scientist. "They're also well aware of President Bush's attitude that you're either with us or against us."

Indeed, the visit to Iraq this week is one of a number of short-term US political successes in the Middle East recently, which some analysts attribute in part to the fear of more regional muscle flexing. Iran has opened up to more substantive inspections of its nuclear programs while Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi repudiated all weapons of mass destruction last Friday.

In a CNN interview, Mr. Qaddafi urged Syria, North Korea, and Iran to follow his lead, saying it would "prevent any tragedy being inflicted upon their own people."

Iraq's neighbors had been moving towards closer relations for some time, but analysts inside the country said Mr. Hussein's capture removed one of the final obstacles toward more full engagement, by demonstrating that he won't be returning to power. "Now that Saddam's regime has completely disappeared from the world stage, it's a good time for our Arab neighbors to come and visit us,'' says Mr. Jaafari, a member of the Governing Council and a spokesman for Daawa, one of Iraq's largest Shiite political parties.

"In the end, our neighbors are deciding that Iraq's stability is important to them,'' says Dr. Tawfik at Baghdad University. "They understand that an unstable Iraq could make for an unstable region."

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