By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
BAGHDAD, Oct. 6 -- The Arab League dispatched an ambassador to Baghdad on Monday, the latest sign of progress in the Iraqi and U.S. effort to ease this country's diplomatic isolation.
Hani Khalaf arrived a day after the first visit by an Egyptian foreign minister in 18 years. The previous envoy of the 22-member Arab League quit in January 2007, criticizing Arab countries for not doing more to ease Iraqis' suffering.
The U.S. government has urged the Sunni-dominated Arab governments in the region to reestablish ties with Iraq's Shiite-led government. Many have been hesitant because of violence here and concerns that they could appear to be endorsing the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. In addition, some nations are wary about the close ties the Iraqi government has developed with Iran.
Khalaf, an Egyptian diplomat, told reporters before leaving Cairo that he would try to promote reconciliation in Iraq. Violence has declined here sharply in the past year but is still at staggering levels.
"We need a more active Arab role in Iraq," Khalaf said.
His arrival ended an embarrassing gap in representation by the Arab League, which groups 21 predominantly Arabic-speaking nations and the Palestinian Authority. The previous ambassador, Mukhtar Lamani, wrote a scathing article after he quit about "the contrast between the enormous suffering I saw daily in Baghdad and the persistent indifference evident in the Arab League meetings in Cairo."
Iraqi politicians welcomed Khalaf's arrival.
"The Iraqis look forward to a larger role by the Arab League in Iraq as well as positive and good relations with the Arab countries," Bassam Sharif, a lawmaker from the Shiite Fadhila Party, told the National Iraqi News Agency.
The U.S. government is hopeful that growing ties with Arab countries will temper Iran's influence here as American forces begin gradually withdrawing from this country.
Jordan's King Abdullah II visited Iraq in August, the first leader of an Arab nation to travel here since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Lebanon, Yemen and the Palestinian Authority maintain embassies in Baghdad. The extreme violence of recent years has contributed to some countries' reluctance to keep high-level representatives here.
An Egyptian ambassador was kidnapped and killed in 2005, shortly after arriving. A car bomb exploded at Jordan's embassy in Baghdad in August 2003, killing at least 17 people.