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    Do its neighbors need Iraq?

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    MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maria Appakova) - For some reason, the outcome of the Third Expanded Ministerial Conference of the Neighboring Countries of Iraq in Kuwait City on April 22 gives one an uneasy feeling, although the gathering was aimed at combining the efforts of Arab states and world powers interested in stabilizing Iraq.

    The opening speech made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and the joint declaration produced by the conference make one wonder who needs Iraq more - its next-door neighbors, or the West (and Russia, for that matter).

    The Kuwait conference was the third event in its kind in the past 12 months. The first meeting of Iraq's neighbors and other nations concerned was held in May 2007 in Egypt, the second, in November in Turkey. However, the underlying intrigue, the U.S.-Iraq standoff, has not changed over that time, and nor has the agenda of the discussions - the neighboring countries, especially the Gulf neighbors, should help stabilize Iraq by living up to pledges to write off Iraq's debts inherited from Saddam's regime and reopen their embassies in Baghdad.

    In his speech, Maliki appealed to the Sunni-led Arab states to live up to these promises.

    He said it was difficult to explain why they wouldn't restore diplomatic relations with Iraq while many other countries have reopened diplomatic missions in Baghdad despite the fragile security situation. The Arab nations seem to be taking their time. Saudi Arabia, which promised to reopen its embassy a year ago, hasn't done so yet. Now Kuwait and Bahrain are making vague commitments, careful not to mention any specific dates.

    On the one hand, they have their reasons to be wary of violence in Iraq. Some of those countries' earlier attempts to reopen embassies in Baghdad ended in disaster - in August 2003, 17 were killed in an attack on Jordan's mission. In 2005, several Algerian and Egyptian diplomats were kidnapped and killed. But, other countries have incurred casualties, too. The killing of Russian Embassy workers in 2006 did not lead to a closure of the mission.

    Granted, personal security is certainly a delicate issue. But the same cannot be said of the other commitments Maliki touched on. Why couldn't the rich Arab countries relieve Baghdad's debt burden?

    Over the past three years, $66.5 billion of Iraq's $120 billion debt has been written off. With Russia's $12 billion debt relief, the Paris Club waived a total of $42.3 billion, while non-Paris Club countries cancelled $8.2 billion of Iraq's debt on the same conditions. Commercial creditors relieved Iraq of another $16 billion. The Arab nations of the Gulf account for more than a half of the remaining amount, around $56.6-$79.9 billion, but they seem in no hurry to help Iraq.

    They have their reasons here, too. The damage done to many of them by the Saddam Hussein regime was too great to forget easily, even though Iraq is supposedly ruled by a different regime now. This is clearly evidenced by the final joint declaration passed by the Kuwait conference. A full five years after the toppling of Saddam's regime, the participants condemned the crimes of the former regime against the peoples of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait, although it would seem they should have turned a clean page by now.

    But this is only part of the explanation. After all Iran, one of the victim nations mentioned in the declaration, is actively developing contacts with Baghdad, not letting the old grudge get in the way of new relations. And here we see the true cause for the reluctance of others. The Sunni-led governments in Iraq's Arab neighbors are wary of getting too friendly with the new Shiite-dominated Iraq government tilted toward Iran, and writing off its debts.

    Moreover, a restored and powerful Iraq would put up serious competition to its neighbors on the oil market; a stable Iraq is almost certain to bring down global oil prices. Therefore, while for the West, Russia, and most Asian nations a stabilized Iraq means billion-dollar contracts and geo-strategic advantages, its Arab neighbors don't really know what to expect. They have not yet developed a policy toward Iraq that would enable them to gain without having to pay too much for it.

    Nevertheless the joint declaration adopted by the conference also contained some important statements of support for al-Maliki's government.

    The Iraqi prime minister also extracted a commitment from Kuwaiti officials to discuss the possibility of cutting the compensation that Baghdad was obliged to pay to the emirate in the wake of the Gulf War of 1990-1991. The final decision will be made by the UN, but at least Kuwait said it was ready to talk. It was also symbolic that this conference was hosted by Kuwait, a country that suffered the most from Saddam's regime.

    The reconciliation between Iraq and the Arab countries is progressing, albeit slowly. It would be better if they translated words into action, and writing off Iraq's debts and reopening embassies would be eloquent examples of that. The issue is still pending; but Russia, which is closely following the situation, is rather optimistic despite all problems.

    Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who took part in the Kuwait conference, largely praised the performance of the working groups on security, energy and refugees formed at the previous meetings in Egypt and Turkey. "These groups have been set up for specific goals. I believe that the recent reduction of the inflow of militants into Iraq could be put to the security group's credit. On the whole, the groups' work is bearing fruit, and Iraq's neighbors have a significant role in that," the Russian minister said in Kuwait.

    Russia was especially satisfied with the energy group's decisions because they reflected an understanding that Iraq's current energy cooperation agreements with foreign partners need to be implemented as soon as possible. Lavrov told Russian journalists that Russia was willing to take an active part in the work of this group, as well as in the group on security.

    It looks like the situation is growing favorable for Russian companies. Lavrov said the Iraqi government was actively inviting them to work in Iraq and was ready to resolve any disputed issues on Russian contracts. The minister emphasized that the Iraqi government appreciated Russia's efforts to relieve Iraq's external debt, as well as Russian energy companies' work to restore the Iraqi power infrastructure, which they continued despite the instability in the country.

    Moscow's interest in the stabilization of Iraq is obvious, and its assistance to that country certainly pays back; the same holds true for the western and Asian nations. But what will it cost the Arab countries to help its neighbor out of the crisis? What will they get in return? These are the most burning questions today, and Iraq's security and stabilization largely rest on them.

    The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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