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Iraq gets a vote of diplomatic confidence from an Arab state

The United Arab Emirates may open an embassy within days. Baghdad hopes other neighbors will follow.

June 06, 2008|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials are hoping for a new era in the country's relations with Arab neighbors following the United Arab Emirates' pledge Thursday to send the first Arab ambassador to Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Sheik Abdullah ibn Zayed al Nuhayyan, the UAE's foreign minister, said here that he hoped to establish a full embassy "in the next few days."

"We have true hopes for Iraq's prosperity and progress," Nuhayyan said at a news conference, where he stood alongside Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "We believe the time is right to encourage Iraq."

Zebari added, "I hope this will be a start for all Arab [states] in Iraq."

Arab nations have shied away from full relations with the new Iraqi government, which is dominated by Shiite Muslims and Kurds -- two groups that were oppressed under the largely Sunni Muslim government of deposed President Saddam Hussein.

The mostly Sunni Persian Gulf nations in particular have kept their distance, wary of Iran's regional ambitions and extensive ties with the new Iraqi government. Iran is dominated by Shiites.

The antipathy has extended in both directions; many Shiites and Kurds in Iraq blame gulf states such as Saudi Arabia for supporting Hussein as a bulwark against Iran. Some here accuse citizens from gulf nations of fueling and financing Iraq's ongoing Sunni-led insurgency.

Previous attempts to establish Arab diplomatic relations have been sabotaged by an insurgent campaign aimed at keeping Iraq's current government isolated in the region. The UAE maintained a charge d'affaires in Baghdad until one of its diplomats was kidnapped and held for several weeks in 2006. Egypt dispatched a senior diplomat in the summer of 2005 with the intention of moving toward full diplomatic relations, but he was kidnapped and killed within weeks of his arrival.

Many neighboring countries maintain lower-level diplomatic presences in Baghdad, but only Turkey and Iran -- both non-Arab nations -- have full embassies.

In addition to smoothing Iraq's reintegration into the Arab political scene, the UAE's move could aid the Iraqi government's campaign to persuade some of its gulf state creditors to forgive part of its massive debts. Iraq owes billions to several gulf nations, much of it dating to loans made during Hussein's eight-year war with Iran.

In other news, the U.S. military released details on Wednesday's massive explosion that killed at least 15 people in the Baghdad neighborhood of Shaab.

The blast was originally believed to be a car bombing because it occurred outside the home of a prominent Iraqi police general. The general's nephew was killed and several family members were seriously wounded.

But U.S. officials said Thursday that the vehicle was a bus smuggling mortar launchers and rockets that accidentally exploded.

"It was a premature detonation," said Brig. Gen. William Grimsley. "It was poor execution by these criminals."

Grimsley blamed the blast on "special-groups criminals," a U.S. term that in effect means rogue members of the Mahdi Army militia operating with support from Iran and independent of Mahdi leader Muqtada Sadr.

The explosion caused rockets to spray across the neighborhood, damaging dozens of area homes.

In Shaab on Thursday, residents lamented their misfortune.

"We, the innocent people, are the victims," said a 26-year-old shuttle bus driver who would identify himself only as Wisam.

The sudden detonation fueled rumors among Shaab residents that the bus had been struck by a missile from an American helicopter. None of the residents interviewed said they saw a missile, but some reported hearing a loud hissing sound just before the blast.

Grimsley denied that the bus was fired on.

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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