More than promises
Iraqi Shia leader Ammar Al-Hakim speaks of the need to rebuild ties with Egypt and Arabs in interview with Salah Hemeid
For more than five years, Egypt, a Sunni Arab powerhouse, has been reluctant to invite top leaders of Iraq's ruling Shia factions to Cairo for fear that direct public contacts would send the wrong message -- that it condones the way Shia groups are handling the situation in Iraq.
Shia officials who have made the trip to Egypt since the 2003 US-led war were here either in official capacity or doing government-to-government business. Like many other Sunni Arab governments, Egypt views improvement of relations with Iraq as linked to ending Iranian influence in the chaos-stricken country and the establishment of a more representative government in Baghdad that gives Iraqi Sunnis a larger role.
Ammar Al-Hakim, deputy leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a key partner in Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's coalition government, travelled this week to Cairo in an attempt to alleviate that kind of mistrust in talks with senior Egyptian officials and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. In interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Hakim underlined that his message to Egypt and all Arabs is that Iraqi Shias are not Iran's stooges and they won't maintain close ties with the Persian nation at the expense of historic ties with their Arab brethren.
Calling Egypt "a nation of great history and civilisation", Al-Hakim said the Iraqi Shia-led government wants to give its relations with Egypt a push in the political, economic and cultural fields, and even in security cooperation. "There is a wide horizon to expand bilateral relations and even to forge a strategic alliance between Iraq and Egypt," he said. "We hope that this visit will be a step in that direction," he explained, indicating that upgrading diplomatic and political relations could lead to lucrative economic deals. Al-Hakim did not give details, but said plans for "closer bilateral cooperation" are to be discussed with Egyptian officials.
Asked if the assassination of Egypt's chief diplomat in Baghdad, Ehab El-Sherif, in 2005 could still block Egypt from reopening its embassy in Baghdad, shut down after the tragic incident, Al-Hakim said: "We are fully ready to provide security and a location or anything that will facilitate the presence of an Egyptian ambassador in Iraq to enhance bilateral relations." He accused Al-Qaeda of being behind El-Sherif's murder, which he described as "a heinous crime", suggesting that the terror network is now weaker, while Iraqi security forces are better equipped to protect foreign diplomats.
Al-Hakim is mindful that reaching out to Egypt needs more than promises of economic benefit and political tradeoffs. He knows that Egypt remains deeply suspicious of Iraq's Shia leaders and their close ties to Iran, that it accuses of attempting to extend its influence throughout the region. "Iran is a friendly nation, like Turkey for example, but the Arab countries are the lung through which we breathe air. We want to build relations with all and we do not want to be a party to policies of axes in the region," he emphasised.
While stressing that the Shia- dominated government in Baghdad does not intend to turn Iraq into a pro-Iran preserve, Al-Hakim is also careful to dismiss any notion that Iraq can turn against Iran. His message is clear: Iraqi Shias do not need to oppose Iran in order to assert their Arab identity. "We believe that policies of isolation and regional axes are useless, Iraq can no longer be the Arab world's eastern gate as it was addressed once. Iraq can be an Arab bridge for a strategic regional partnership. In such a framework we can realise the interests of all parties and each can then have his role in accordance to his size and in way that does not infringe on others' interests," he said.
On another related issue that worries most Sunni Arabs, the rise of Shias in the region following the 2003 war that empowered Iraqi Shia and sparked fear of polarisation, Al-Hakim appears keen to carry another reassuring message. "We differentiate between two things: Shiism, which is only an interpretation of Islam and dedication to the family of the Prophet Mohamed, and any political project." Shiism, he said "is only a [religious] sect and not a political party and it is wrong to associate all the Arab Shias with one political project or a specific political agenda." He stressed: "Arab Shias are sons of their own countries and like Sunnis they should maintain their local identity."
Yet, Al-Hakim does not hide his resentment towards rising anti-Shia sentiment, including accusations of loyalty to Iran and allegations of a push to dominate the region. "On the other hand, its harmful to raise doubts about the Arab Shias' loyalty to their countries and to accuse them of harbouring a foreign agenda," he said. "Shias are citizens of their own countries and they are governed by their national specificity," he added.
It is not clear what response Al-Hakim has received from Egyptian officials he met as Egyptian state media kept his five-day visit low profile. One thing that was crystal clear, however, is that although Egypt cares about Iraq and its well being, it cannot hide its fears and strong distaste for present conditions in that Arab country.