To Iraq’s Shia-led government, the Arab League summit that started in Baghdad on Tuesday is an excellent opportunity to reemerge itself in the region’s politics.
Iraq has not hosted a summit meeting since 1990, the year that became infamous for Saddam Hussein’s invasion and short occupation of neighboring Kuwait.
Indeed, that invasion proved to be as devastating for Iraq’s diplomatic posture as it was for its military. Over the next two decades, Arab leaders either ignored Baghdad entirely or marginalized its leadership to such an extent that Baghdad found itself on the outside looking in.
With Saddam gone, most of the economic sanctions lifted and violence in Iraq at its lowest point in years, Iraqi officials are no doubt trying to break away from that isolation.
Yet what Iraq’s leaders see as a momentous period in the nation’s diplomatic history, much of the public sees as an unnecessary nuisance that will make their lives even more complicated. Rather than viewing the Arab League conference as a chance to forge new connections with their neighbors, many Iraqis in Baghdad and elsewhere are waving off the event as a publicity stunt by their squabbling politicians — an event that will have no real positive impact on their personal lives.
Residents of Baghdad are especially aggravated about the meeting, with the capital essentially locked down for three days.
To make the conference as safe as possible for the visiting Arab dignitaries, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has dispatched an additional 100,000 Iraqi army and police personnel to Baghdad. The slow traffic that is already a trademark of life inside the city has gotten worse in a span of days, with hundreds of new checkpoints being set up along major highways. Bridges that cross the Euphrates River and lead into the capital are shut down to all cars. Some families have no choice but to walk miles for a bag of groceries due to the difficulty of navigating the streets.
Iraqi officials have labeled the summit as an example of their country’s growing independence and improved national stability since the height of its civil war in 2006. Some of this boasting is appropriate. Today’s Iraq looks like heaven when compared to 2006 and 2007, when an average of a few thousand civilians were killed every month.
Yet despite the decrease in casualties and the Iraqi government’s rising competence in wiping out insurgents, the security forces are still not fully confident of their abilities, particularly during a high stakes diplomatic moment.
Prime Minister Maliki evidently believes that Arab diplomats cannot be safe in Baghdad without the entire city locked down, as if martial law was being imposed. This decision alone demonstrates that Iraq is far from the strong, united and secure nation that its leaders make it out to be.
Iraqi civilians, seemingly always one step ahead of their politicians, know this all too well.