The summit of the 22-nation Arab League this week in Baghdad marks a big moment in the political evolution of the Middle East. Since it last met in Sirte,Libya,two years ago,the Arab world has been ravaged by a political tsunami. The focus of the Arab League has shifted from the unending conflict with Israel to coping with new fissures within and between its member-states and the rising power of the non-Arab Muslim states Iran and Turkey. The erupting Arab street threw two dictators out of power Tunisias Ben Ali and Egypts Hosni Mubarak. A prolonged war and Western intervention saw the ouster and killing of Libyas Muammar Gaddafi. Yemens strongman Abdullah Saleh handed over power after more than a year of protests at his rule.
One of the largest nations in the Arab league,Sudan,has seen the secession of its southern part. The detritus from the partition continues to trouble the relations between the new entity,South Sudan,and Khartoum.
Amidst the bloody crackdown on protestors by Damascus,the Arab League suspended Syria from the organisation and is demanding that President Bashar al-Assad step down and make way for a political transition. Leading members of the Arab League are supporting the opposition to Assad and arming the rebels,while Iran backs the current regime in Syria. Some see Syria as the theatre for a much broader Shia-Sunni rivalry that has begun to envelop the whole region. This sectarian schism is reinforced by a sharpening regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As old and new rulers mingle in Baghdad,the scale and scope of the change is too much for any organisation to handle. No one is betting that the Arab League will rise to the occasion.
Whatever the difficulties faced by the League,the gathering of its leaders in Baghdad is in itself an event. For Baghdad,the summit is about rejoining the world after more than two decades. The last time Baghdad hosted a summit of the league was in March 1990.
Since then,Iraq has been in the eye of the regional storm. Saddam Husseins invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was followed by the first Gulf War. After liberating Kuwait in early 1991,the United States kept Iraq under debilitating international sanctions for more than a decade. Washington invaded Iraq in 2003,ousted the regime of Saddam Hussein and promoted a democratic process,which in turn empowered Iraqs majority Shia community. This resulted in the first Shia-led state in the Arab world.
With the US troops now gone,Iraq is coming into its own after a gap of two decades. The new Iraq reflects all the contradictions of the Arab world today. In the past,Saddam Husseins Iraq saw itself as a champion of Arab nationalism. Baghdad is today struggling to build political cohesion in a country of different communities the Shia Arabs,the Sunni Arabs,the non-Arab Kurds and many others.
The Sunni monarchies of the Gulf suspect that new Shia-led Iraq is a proxy of Iran. Most Gulf rulers are staying away from the summit and sending lower-ranking officials to the Baghdad summit. The problem for the Sunni Arab states is that if they dont welcome Iraq back into the Arab community,they might push Baghdad closer towards Tehran,an outcome they fear very much.
As a new Iraq emerges,its leaders are trying to balance competing political imperatives and reclaim Baghdads traditional role in the region. If it can maintain a measure of internal unity,there is no stopping Baghdad from becoming a regional power. Blessed with a large population,a rich civilisational heritage,two great rivers and a lot of oil,Iraq is a natural leader. A pivotal position between Iran and the Sunni Arab monarchies,a long border with Syria,and a historic relationship with Turkey make Iraq a critical balancing force in the region.
For all its geopolitical importance and extraordinary goodwill towards India,the UPA government appears to have no time for Iraq. Despite its great rhetoric on Arab solidarity,the UPA government has not sent any minister to Iraq since it came to power in May 2004. Indias inability to effectively engage the changing Arab world is reflected most acutely in its pitiful Iraq policy.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi