Why Iraq is now a Mideast peace broker

Its reformist prime minister has built up enough trust to host a summit of Arab and Iranian leaders that might lift the region’s youth out of despair.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, left, and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visit the historical city Ad Diriyah near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 31.

For half a century, Iraq has been either an aggressor toward its Middle East neighbors or a victim of them. On Saturday, it will try to play a different role, that of a regional mediator for peace. It is a role learned the hard way and now largely driven by young Iraqis, whose common slogan is “We want a country” (Nureed watan).

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, whose past work includes leading an Iraqi foundation for conflict resolution, will be hosting a summit of Arab and Iranian leaders. The main aim is to end the violent rivalry between two big neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as their meddling in Iraq.

Since coming to power as a reformer last year after mass protests against a corrupt elite, Mr. Kadhimi needs regional calm. Elections are due in October and Iraq faces an acute drought, electricity cutoffs, and terrorist attacks on democracy activists.

“We are in a sensitive situation. We need to calm the political situation until we reach the elections,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.

Since early 2021, he has brokered initial talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, using his experience as a former journalist and intelligence chief to find common interests between them. His convening of a summit suggests both countries are ready for a deal, perhaps first in settling one big dispute, their proxy war in Yemen.

“Iraq has succeeded in gaining the trust of these countries, and accordingly, it is working toward the stability of the region,” he told AP.

Since Iraq’s liberation from a dictator in 2003 by the United States, its fledgling democracy has been racked by internal rivalry between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. But the Iraqi people found some unity in their 2017 victory over the Islamic State caliphate, followed by youth protests in 2019 against corruption and the divvying up of resources by ethnicity and religion.

Iraq is not alone in feeling pressure from restive youth. Leaders in Saudi Arabia and Iran know they must satisfy the demands of young people, which can only happen with regional peace and economic investments. In Iran, voter turnout for a June presidential election was the lowest since the 1979 revolution. In frequent protests, Iranians shout “Down with the dictatorship.”

Within Iraq, Mr. Kadhimi has earned enough trust between political factions to make modest reforms. Now he also has enough trust with neighboring countries to act as a bridge for reconciliation. He has seen Iraq as both aggressor and victim. He can help others find a way to end that cycle of conflict.

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