BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq is hosting a regional conference on Saturday aimed at easing tensions in the Middle East and underlining the Arab country’s new role as mediator.
Among the guests are sworn enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose rivalry has often been played out in Iraq and other countries, including Yemen and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has said it will be represented by its foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan. It was not clear what kind of representation Iran would have at the conference.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and King Abdullah of Jordan were to participate, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron, who arrived in Baghdad on Sunday morning. France is co-hosting the meeting, which is expected to discuss a regional water crisis, the war in Yemen and a severe economic and political crisis in Lebanon that has brought the country to the brink of collapse.
Sunday’s meeting is an opportunity for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to showcase his recent efforts to portray Iraq as a neutral mediator in the region’s crises and reconnect with the world after decades of conflict.
Earlier this year, the country hosted several rounds of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, with mid-level officials discussing issues related to Yemen and Lebanon, according to Iraqi officials. The talks signaled a possible de-escalation after years of animosity that often spilled over to neighboring countries and at least one still raging war.
The talks, while important, have failed to achieve a breakthrough in relations given deep tensions, historic rivalry and continued sporadic attacks on Saudi oil targets by the Iranian-backed Houthis of Yemen. However, there was talk of the possibility of Saudi Arabia reopening its embassy in Tehran, which was ransacked and closed following outrage over the execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric in early 2016. .
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states like the United Arab Emirates have called for any nuclear deal between world powers and Iran to address its ballistic missile program and support for militias as well.
Saudi Arabia has sought a chat with Iran as the kingdom tries to end its multi-year war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Tehran, meanwhile, seems to have calculated that a gradual detente with Riyadh, a long-time US ally, will work in its favor when nuclear talks with Washington and the world powers resume.
For Iraq, hosting the talks is seen as an important step. After decades of conflict, the country seeks to reclaim a role and a leadership status in the Arab world with a centrist politics and a determination among the principal leaders of the country to maintain good relations with Iran and the United States and its regional allies.
The predominantly Shiite country sits on the dividing line between Shia Iran and the predominantly Sunni Arab world, ruled by Saudi power, and has long been the scene of Saudi-Iranian rivalry for regional supremacy.