Iraq hosted a regional conference on Saturday aimed at easing tensions in the Middle East while emphasising the Arab country’s new role as a mediator.
Heads of state attending included Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and French President Emmanuel Macron.
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Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates sent their heads of government, and Turkey its foreign minister.
Also attending were the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose rivalry has often played out in Iraq and other countries, including Yemen and Lebanon.
There was no indication of any direct meetings between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Iraq said talks between the two countries, which began in April, were continuing.
Organisers of the Baghdad summit said they did not expect any diplomatic breakthroughs.
“The fact that we managed to bring rival countries together on the same table and initiate dialogue between them is not only important to them and us but to the whole region,” said Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein.
France co-organised the meeting, which discussed a potentially devastating regional water crisis, the war in Yemen, and the severe economic and political situation in Lebanon that has brought the country to the point of collapse.
Analysts said the meeting was a chance for Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to showcase his recent efforts to portray Iraq as a neutral mediator in the region’s crises and re-engage with the world after decades of conflict.
Iraq seeks to play a “unifying role” to tackle crises shaking the region, sources close to al-Kadhimi say.
“This summit marks the return of Iraq as a pivotal player in the region,” said political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari, who heads the Iraqi Political Thinking Center in Baghdad. “Having rival parties be seated at the same table is a significant step in that direction.”
Earlier this year, Iraq hosted several rounds of direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with mid-level officials discussing issues related to Yemen and Lebanon. The talks signalled a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that often spilled into neighbouring countries and at least one still-raging war in Yemen.
The discussions, while significant, fell short of a breakthrough in relations given the deep strains, historic rivalry and continued sporadic attacks on Saudi oil targets by Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen.
There has been talk, however, of the potential for Saudi Arabia to reopen its embassy in Tehran, which was ransacked and shuttered following outrage over the execution of a prominent Saudi Shia cleric in early 2016.
The Iraqi foreign minister on Saturday avoided a question as to whether his Iranian and Saudi counterparts met at the sidelines of the Baghdad conference, saying only: “These meetings in fact began in Iraq, and in Baghdad, and these meetings are continuing, and will continue.”
He added, “What we understood from the two sides, or the parties, is a great and wide desire to reach positive results to solve the outstanding problems between the two countries.”
The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait meanwhile both confirmed that their foreign ministers met their Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amirabdollahian, but provided no further details.
Iranian officials have said they are focused more on the outcome of talks in Vienna with Western powers over Iran’s nuclear programme and international sanctions. “The meeting in Iraq … is only focused on Iraq and how the regional countries can cooperate to help Iraq,” an Iranian official told the Reuters news agency ahead of the Baghdad summit.
ISIL ‘making strides’
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed said leaders also discussed investment projects between the participants and addressed political and security challenges facing Iraq, including the possible resurgence of ISIL (ISIS).
“Iraq’s stability is key to the stability of the whole region. This is how the regional leaders participating in the Baghdad conference concluded it on Saturday,” he said.
France’s Macron, whose country is co-organising the meeting, described Saturday’s meeting as “historic” and said it showcased Iraq’s return to stability following the ruinous war against ISIL.
The French leader said his country would continue to deploy troops in Iraq to battle “terrorism” even if the US were to withdraw.
“No matter what choices the Americans make, we will maintain our presence in Iraq to fight against terrorism,” he said.
France was part of a US-led coalition established to battle the armed group’s fighters. Though Iraq declared ISIL territorially defeated in December 2017, it still retains sleeper cells and continues to claim bloody attacks.
One of the deadliest was a July bombing that ripped through a crowded Baghdad market, killing at least 30 people on the eve of a key Muslim holiday.
That same month, US President Joe Biden said his country’s combat operations in Iraq would end this year, but US soldiers would continue to train, advise and support the country’s military in the fight against ISIL.
Washington currently has 2,500 troops deployed to Iraq.
According to Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, ISIL “still has access to tens of millions of dollars and will likely continue to rebuild its network throughout Iraq and Syria”.
“[Its] primary goal at the moment is to have its affiliates maintain momentum until it can sufficiently rebuild its core in the Levant,” Clarke said. “[ISIL] affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa and now Afghanistan will have the opportunity to make strides in the coming year.”
But Rasha al-Aqeedi, senior analyst at Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, said coalition forces believed Iraq’s security personnel could prevent another ISIL advance.
“Maybe they’re not ideal, but they’re good enough for America to leave the country believing that Iraq is not going to live through another 2014,” she said.