August 28, 2021
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -Several Middle Eastern leaders and French President Emmanuel Macron met in Baghdad on Saturday at a summit hosted by Iraq, which wants its neighbours to talk to each other instead of settling scores on its territory.
Iraq’s security has improved in recent years but it is still plagued by big power rivalries and heavily armed militia groups.
Competition for influence in the Middle East between Iran on one side and the United States, Israel and Gulf Arab states on the other has made Iraq the scene of attacks against U.S. forces and assassinations of Iranian and Iraqi paramilitary leaders.
The strained relationships within the region have also led to disruptions to global oil supplies with attacks on Saudi Arabian oil installations – blamed on but denied by Tehran.
Organisers of the Baghdad summit said they did not expect any diplomatic breakthroughs. “Getting these countries to sit around the table – that will be achievement enough,” said one Iraqi government official.
Heads of state attending included Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, King Abdullah of Jordan, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Macron. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates sent their heads of government, and Turkey its foreign minister.
Macron was due to stay an extra day, meet Iraqi leaders and visit French special forces fighting Islamic State insurgents.
Shi’ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, longtime rivals for regional dominance, sent their foreign ministers. The two countries resumed direct talks in Iraq in April this year, but those meetings yielded no breakthroughs.
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 Reuters ahead of the Baghdad summit.
The U.S.-Iran rivalry brought the Middle East to the brink of war after the United States under former U.S. President Donald Trump killed Iran’s military mastermind Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike at Baghdad airport in 2020.
Iran-backed militias have launched increasingly sophisticated drone and rocket attacks against U.S. forces stationed in Iraq, and also fired drones at Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has blamed attacks on its oil installations on Iran – a charge Tehran denies.
The U.S. military drawdown in Iraq and the new nuclear talks with Iran instigated by President Joe Biden’s administration have prompted Riyadh to favour engagement with Iran as a way to contain tensions without abandoning its security concerns.
Ahead of the summit, UAE Vice-President Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum met Qatar’s al-Thani and described him as a “brother and friend” in a sign of warming ties between the Gulf rivals.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in 2017 severed ties with Qatar over charges it supports terrorism – a broad reference to Islamist groups – which Qatar denied.
Since a deal in January, Riyadh and Cairo have restored diplomatic ties. Abu Dhabi and Manama have yet to do so.
Complicating the security landscape in Iraq, Turkish troops are battling Kurdish separatists in the north. Their presence has drawn rocket fire from Iran-aligned militias.
(Reporting by Baghdad newsroom and John Davison in Geneva, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai and Dubai newsroom, Editing by Catherine Evans and Ros Russell)