Moving to repair a long-fractured diplomatic relationship, Saudi Arabia has named its first ambassador to Iraq in more than two decades, Iraq’s foreign minister announced Tuesday.
The Saudis did not, however, say they were reopening an embassy in Baghdad. Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, said in a Twitter posting that the Saudi ambassador to Jordan would serve as the new “nonresident” Iraqi envoy. He is Fahd al-Zaid.
Still, the Saudi move restores normal diplomatic relations between the oil-rich neighbors for the first time since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It may also signal Saudi Arabia’s desire for a stronger presence in Iraq to buttress against the influence of Iran, a longtime nemesis of the Saudi kingdom.
Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been especially strained since the 2003 American invasion toppled Mr. Hussein’s Sunni-dominated government and ushered in a Shiite-led one which has cultivated closer relations with Iran and Iranian-supported political movements inside Iraq.
According to diplomatic cables released in 2010 by WikiLeaks, Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, complained to President Obama in 2009 about meddling by the Sunni government in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for his part, told a top American counterterrorism adviser that he did not trust Mr. Maliki, according to the cables.
The two nations found themselves in bitter opposition last year as pro-democracy protests swept through the tiny gulf state of Bahrain. Saudi officials sent in troops to support the Sunni minority rulers in Bahrain, while many in Iraq’s Shiite majority denounced the intervention and rallied in Iraq’s streets to show their solidarity with the largely Shiite demonstrators.
But recently, Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been discussing an exchange of prisoners. And on Tuesday, some Iraqi lawmakers greeted the announcement as a step toward moving past years of mistrust and suspicion.
“Iraq and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are two neighbors and have a history, so we can’t cancel all of that because of conflicts or political disagreements,” said Arkan Arshad Zebari, an Iraqi lawmaker on Parliament’s foreign relations committee. “The Saudi initiative is good and welcome.”
Martin Kobler, the special representative of the United Nations secretary general for Iraq, welcomed the move as an “important step” toward normalizing ties between the two countries.
Iraq has had an ambassador to Saudi Arabia since 2009, and reopened its embassy in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, as it sought to restore diplomatic ties with its neighbors after the American-led invasion.
The move comes as Iraq, once a bloody vortex of unrest in the Middle East, tries to burnish its regional reputation and clean up the capital in preparation for a long-delayed meeting of the Arab League. The summit meeting was canceled last year as waves of unrest and revolution swept the Arab world.
With diplomats and heads of state now set to arrive at the end of March, work crews have been planting grass and palm trees along the road in from the airport as well as installing new street lights in the International Zone, the center of government and diplomacy in Iraq.