BAGHDAD – Saudi Arabia is taking a major step toward thawing diplomatic relations with Iraq by posting an ambassador to Baghdad for the first time in more than two decades, Iraq's foreign minister said Tuesday.
Hoshyar Zebari said the new ambassador will arrive in Baghdad soon to submit his credentials from Riyadh.
"We welcome this development which represents a good restart and a step to normalize the relations between the two countries," Zebari told The Associated Press.
Relations between the Saudis' powerful Sunni kingdom and the Shiite-led government in Iraq have been frosty for years. Riyadh and other Gulf states cut diplomatic ties with Baghdad after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates restored their diplomatic missions to Baghdad after Saddam's 2003 ouster. But Saudi Arabia has remained deeply suspicious of Iraq's Shiite government, accusing it of sidelining the nation's once-dominant Sunni Arab minority and helping Iran extend its influence in the Middle East.
It's not clear whether Saudi Arabia will attend an annual Arab League summit scheduled to be held in Baghdad next month. Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi said Iraq would soon send out formal invitations for the meeting to all League nations.
The summit was supposed to be held in Baghdad last year but it was canceled amid the turmoil that at the time was gripping the Arab world. Grumbling that Iraq appeared to be siding with Shiites protesting the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain also raised concerns that some Sunni-dominated Gulf nations would boycott the meeting.
Martin Kobler, the top United Nations envoy in Iraq, called the appointment of an ambassador "an encouraging sign."
In an interview Tuesday, Kobler said Iraq is now taking significant steps to appear inclusive to Sunnis. He sounded optimistic that the leaders of Iraq's major parties would soon agree to work out ways to share more power with Sunnis who feel sidelined by the Shiite-led government.
"The signs are encouraging," he said.
Meanwhile, however, the spokesman of Iraq's judicial council Tuesday said Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the country's highest-ranking Sunni official, would be tried in three criminal cases starting in May. Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said al-Hashemi would be tried in absentia if he refuses to leave his safe haven in Iraq's northern Kurdish region and return to Baghdad, as he has pledged.
Al-Hashemi has been charged with commanding death squads that investigators allege were behind at least 150 attacks since 2005. Al-Hashemi denies the charges, calling them politically motivated. Experts fear the divisive case will further hike sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites.