Iraq's sectarian agenda hurts its ties with GCC

As Iraq prepares to host an Arab League meeting, it must consider what it has to do internally to improve relations with the GCC states.

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After years of icy diplomatic ties, Saudi Arabia appointed its first ambassador to Iraq in two decades last month. The move was seen as a step towards mending ties between the two countries before the Arab League's meeting in Baghdad later this month. But it was also taken as an indication that Iraq, after nearly a decade of sectarian bloodletting, was ready to come to terms with the regional bloc of nations across the Gulf.

How quickly those hopes were tempered. On Sunday, Riyadh said it will attend the League's meeting only under certain conditions. The sub-text was clear: until Baghdad puts an end to its targeting of Sunni lawmakers, and until it distances itself from Iran, Iraq's place in the region's community of nations will remain peripheral.

There are, to be sure, deep ideological and political differences between Iraq and its GCC neighbours. And there is plenty of blame to go around. Issues like the Mubarak port dispute with Kuwait, Saudi prisoners and reciprocal interference in religious affairs (Saudi clerics are accused of inciting violence in Iraq, and Iraqi clerics are accused of encouraging anti-Saudi sentiment in Bahrain), will not vanish overnight. Riyadh's belief that the Iraqi prime minister is "an Iranian agent" has also kept GCC investment from pouring into Iraq, money and development aid the war-ravaged nation desperately needs.

Still, the onus remains on Baghdad. Iraq has taken some steps to improve ties with its Gulf neighbours, supporting the most recent Arab League resolution against the Syrian regime, for instance. But the GCC's financial and political commitments to Iraq will remain well below their potential until Baghdad and Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki improve levels of governance and accountability, and remove the tinge of sectarianism from politics. Politically motivated attacks on Sunni political leaders, including Vice President Tariq Al Hashemi, do little to inspire confidence.

Iraq must understand that its neighbourhood is changing; it needs new friends. Iran is facing crippling sanctions over its nuclear programme, and with the potential downfall of the Assad regime in Syria, Iraq could be left with a weaker neighbour on its doorstep.

Mending fences with the rest of the neighbourhood, then, is in Iraq's best interest going forward.