For Iraq the mere fact that the summit is being held in a city renowned for its regular suicide bombings and woeful infrastructure is already considered a triumph.
“We pulled it together,” Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said in an interview Monday. “Nobody believed us. The very idea it is taking place is a success.”
Most significantly, he said, Iraq sees the opportunity to reclaim what it regards as its rightful role as a regional Arab power now that Saddam Hussein has gone, the nearly nine-year presence of U.S. troops has ended and the country is standing on its feet again.
For Iraq, it is a profound moment, one that both tests and affirms its identity as a Shiite-majority nation that also happens to be Arab. Despite predictions that Iraq’s Shiite-led government would embrace Iran as soon as U.S. troops withdrew, Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has instead been tilting toward his Arab neighbors. He has raced to mend fences with a roster of Sunni Arab states, including Egypt, Kuwait, Libya and, most significantly, Saudi Arabia, that had long expressed animosity toward the Shiite government in Baghdad.
Iraqi officials dismiss suggestions that the charm offensive was launched merely to secure attendance and won’t outlast the summit.
“Iraq today embraces its Arab brothers,” said Ali al-Musawi, a spokesman for Maliki. “We know very well that holding the summit in Baghdad will restore our economic and political significance as a major player and a pivotal state in the region.”
It’s a turning point, too, for an Arab world unsettled by the turmoil unleashed during the revolts of 2011. The summit will be hosted by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who was publicly snubbed by the late Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gaddafi at the last Arab summit in 2010 because he is a member of Iraq’s Kurdish minority. Maliki is also expected to play a leading role.
The invitees are almost all Sunni, and though many nations are not sending their heads of state, the fact that all have said they will come is considered a signal of Iraq’s reacceptance into the Arab fold after more than two decades of isolation. Only Syria, which was suspended from the Arab League in November because of its government’s brutal crackdown against pro-democracy protesters, will not be there.
Arab states “are seeing Iraq rising again. It is showing independence,” Zebari said. “And it is not an Iranian-controlled and -occupied country as they thought.”