BAGHDAD – Kuwait on Thursday named its first ambassador to Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War, in a major step toward healing the two countries' painful past and boosting regional ties with Baghdad's post-war government.
The announcement came as the Sunni leader of Lebanon's parliamentary majority met Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — also reflecting Iraq's efforts to reconcile with aloof Arab neighbors and tamp down sectarian tension across the region.
Sunni Arab leaders suspect Shiite power Iran has strong influence over al-Maliki, who has made some diplomatic gains in the region but has struggled to win over Sunni powerhouses such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Kuwait's official news agency quoted the country's foreign minister as saying retired Lt. Gen. Ali al-Momen, a former military chief of staff, will take the ambassador post. His appointment will be issued in a decree by the emir, it said.
The country closed its embassy in Iraq in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded his tiny, oil-rich neighbor. The attack spurred the 1991 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam's forces.
The two neighbors had no relations until more than a dozen years later, when another American invasion toppled Saddam. They resumed ties after 2003, and an Iraqi Embassy reopened in Kuwait, led by a charge d'affaires.
Kuwait had held back from reopening its embassy in Baghdad, however, citing security concerns. Diplomats from Bahrain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab countries have all been either killed, wounded or kidnapped in Iraq since 2003.
Al-Qaida in Iraq had warned Arab states not to open embassies in Baghdad because of the Iraqi government's collaboration with U.S. military forces. But Iraqi and U.S. officials say violence has declined by 70 percent over the past year, and there have been no attacks on diplomatic missions in years.
A week ago, Kuwait said security had improved enough for it to finally name an ambassador.
Kuwait joins the United Arab Emirates and Jordan in opening up diplomatically to Baghdad, a step the U.S. has been prodding them to take. Bahrain has also said it is in the process of choosing an ambassador.
Saad Hariri's visit to Baghdad on Thursday also indicated the increasing willingness of Sunni leaders to improve ties with Baghdad's Shiite-dominated government.
Hariri, the son of a former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated in a 2005 truck bombing in Beirut, is close to the Saudi royal family, which seeks to safeguard Sunni interests in Iraq and has remained cool to al-Maliki.
"Hariri expressed his willingness to mediate between Iraq and other Arab nations. He is here in particular to mediate between Iraq and Saudi Arabia," said Yassin Majeed, an adviser to al-Maliki.
A statement by al-Maliki's office said he and Hariri discussed Lebanon's new government, which includes Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group backed by Iran. Al-Maliki says he supports the accord that led to the government, even though Hariri was forced to accept the Qatar-mediated deal after a Hezbollah victory in street fighting in May.
The United States has accused Hezbollah of training Shiite militants in Iraq.
"We reject any interference in Iraqi internal affairs. We encourage reconstruction in Iraq. Lebanese companies will participate in the reconstruction in Iraq," Hariri said after the meeting.
Iraq's government spokesman, Ali al-Dabagh, delivered a similar message: "Iraq emphasized that it does not interfere in other countries' internal affairs, and rejects any interference in its own affairs."
The comments hinted at the burden carried by Lebanon, long a proxy battleground for regional powers and factions, and Iraq, where the United States and Iran, as well as Sunni Arab neighbors, all have a stake.
Deadly attacks continue in Iraq, but dramatic improvements in security are due partly to al-Maliki's willingness to rein in Shiite extremist groups such as the Mahdi Army. That resolve boosted his political standing, but he still faces pressure from Iraq's competing factions.
The prime minister of Turkey, which is growing in stature as a regional mediator, visited Baghdad last week, but Jordan's king abruptly postponed a visit around the same time without a clear explanation.