A Stillborn Initiative

October 31, 2010

The Saudi king’s invitation to the Iraqi parties to hold talks in Riyadh after Hajj raises numerous questions and alarm bells for the Iraqi people about their future. It also serves as a reminder of the dangers and challenges that lie ahead for the new Iraq.
On Saturday, 30 October 2010, as the various Iraqi parties were preparing to meet in Arbil and Baghdad to settle the political crisis and form a government, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia invited President Jalal Talabani and other Iraqi leaders for talks in Riyadh after Eid Al-Adha.
The irony here is that a country which has never seen an election, does not allow for a Shia presence, and does not have, or recognize, any ethnic minorities is trying to fix the problems of a new democracy with a Shia majority and a sizeable Kurdish, Turkoman and Chaldo-Assyrian population.
The manner in which the invitation was drafted was a clear indication that the Saudis do not have a clue about the new Iraq, nor do they intend to solve the country’s problems.
The invitation mentions President Jalal Talabani by name and “the rest of the parties that took part in the election” — as if the problem here is President Talabani and the other parties, or is over the presidential post, or is between Kurds and Arabs.
The reality is that the dispute is between the Arabs. One day it is an internal conflict between the Shia; another day it is between the Sunnis; and at other times, it is between Shia and Sunnis.
Given their impartial position, the Kurds were paving the way for a settlement of the dispute.
Many here in Iraq recognize that the Saudi invitation was timed to spoil these attempts by driving a deeper wedge between the Arabs and the Kurds of Iraq while at the same time prolonging and deepening the Sunni-Shia conflict.
By its very nature, Saudi Arabia is not fit to either mediate in Iraq or even understand the nuances of this complex and diverse country.
Their predominant position is an anti-Shia one. During his entire time as prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who is Shia, did not receive a single invitation to visit Saudi Arabia. Given examples such as this, how can Saudi Arabia overnight become a mediator or an arbitrator between the Shia and the Sunnis?
The Iraqi reactions to the initiative were a clear demonstration of the limited credibility Saudi enjoys. The Shia and the Kurds refused the mediation, while the Sunnis welcomed it.
Every now and then, the people of Iraq hear of Saudi preachers insulting Shia symbols, including the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, as well as disparaging comments toward the Shia faith in Saudi Arabia’s mosques and satellite TV channels. Most Iraqis believe that ending these practices would be a goodwill gesture before helping to form the government.
As opposed to dressing their initiatives with an all-Iraqi solution to form the government, the Saudis would have been much better off if they were more open and truthful by solely expressing concerns about the status of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. They could have also been more open in expressing their concerns about the extent of Iran’s influence or interference in Iraq.
The initiative also could have been better prepared. As things stand, it seems that Saudi minimized Iraqiya’s chances of positioning themselves well in the next government. They instead managed to draw the Kurds and the Shia closer to each other, while further enhancing Iran’s role in Iraq.
If tomorrow Mahmoud Ahmadinajad makes a similar invitation as the one extended by King Abullah (who, it should be noted, has not even appointed an ambassador to Iraq) surely many more people — including Sunnis — would attend the Tehran meeting rather than one in Riyadh.
But Ahmadinajad would not interfere so blatantly, because he seems to understand the new Iraq better than the Saudis. The past seven months have proven that any interference in negotiations over the government formation will only further complicate Iraq’s deeply polarized political environment.
When the people of Iraq went to the polls to vote for their MPs, they did so with the understanding that the Iraqis are the only ones who should form the government, and that the only place where it can be formed is Iraq. If Iraq veers from this principle, the political blocs will be responsible – and the citizens will be the ones to pay the price.

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