Iraqi president to visit Saudi Arabia amid hopes of diplomatic thaw

Reuters , Monday 10 Nov 2014

Iraqi President Fouad Masoum will visit Riyadh on Tuesday, Saudi state media reported, raising hopes of a tentative thaw in long-chilly relations between the Arab neighbours.

Real power in Iraq resides with the country's Shi'ite-led government and prime minister, but the first presidential visit to Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia since 2010 opens the door to a possible rapprochement, political analysts say.

The Saudi media reports gave no details on the visit of Masoum, a Kurdish Sunni Muslim.

A substantive improvement in ties between Riyadh and Baghdad could help strengthen a regional alliance against Islamic State militants who have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria and also smooth wider tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iraq's ally Iran.

Saudi Arabia has long accused Iraq of being too close to Iran, its main regional rival, and of encouraging sectarian discrimination, a charge Baghdad denies.

Although Iraqi officials have visited Saudi Arabia for multilateral meetings on several occasions in recent years, bilateral talks have been rare since Riyadh closed its Baghdad embassy in 1990 following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Since the appointment in August of Heidar al-Abadi as Iraq's prime minister, however, Saudi Arabia has made cautious moves towards rapprochement, swiftly sending him a message of congratulations and hinting it may reopen its Baghdad embassy.

Several top members of the kingdom's ruling Al Saud dynasty had branded Abadi's predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, a puppet of Iran, U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks showed, and accused him of ruling Iraq only on behalf of the Shi'ites.

"The Saudis want to give Abadi more time to see what he is going to do. They gave him a good welcome when he was appointed and opened the door. But they understand there is a big struggle inside the Shi'ite house and are not sure how far he can deliver," said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with close ties to the Saudi government.

Maliki was replaced by Abadi as a result of Islamic State's lightning advance across Iraq in June. Saudi Arabia invited Iraq's foreign minister in August to a meeting in Jeddah which built a regional coalition against Islamic State.

Western countries including the United States believe Saudi Arabia could play an important role in persuading Iraq's Sunni Arab community to support Baghdad against Islamic State. 

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