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King Abdullah's symbolic Iraq visit

By Crispin Thorold
BBC News in Baghdad

It may have only lasted four hours and have been cloaked in secrecy but King Abdullah's visit to Baghdad was a trip of great symbolism.

The Jordanian monarch became the first leader of an Arab state to visit Iraq since the US invasion in 2003.

King Abdullah met the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, and the vice-president Adel Abdul Mahdi. The Iraqi Prime Minister's office said "frank and positive talks" were held.

In many ways the content of the discussions are less important than the fact that they took place in Baghdad.

King Abdullah meets Nouri Maliki
Relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbours are improving

For the past year American and Iraqi diplomats have been putting pressure on Iraq's predominantly Sunni Arab neighbours to become more engaged with the Iraqi government.

This visit by one of the United States' closest allies in the Middle East was the latest sign of the improved relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbours.

In recent months the governments of Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have announced that they will send ambassadors to Baghdad. Soon the Jordanian embassy, which was bombed by insurgents five years ago, will be fully staffed once again.

Tensions

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein relations between Jordan and Iraq have been difficult.

The former monarch, King Hussein, was close to Saddam Hussein. During the second Gulf War in 1991 Jordan was officially neutral, a decision which strained relations with the United States but reflected the economic dependence of Jordan on its relatively wealthy neighbour.

Over the next decade Jordan received large quantities of Iraqi oil and some Jordanian businessman made fortunes from trade in the country. During the 2003 US invasion King Abdullah gave the Bush administration quiet military and diplomatic assistance.

However, the violence that followed has put enormous strain on Jordan. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees fled to the country - some estimates say there are as many as 750,000 Iraqis living in Jordan.

A few were prominent supporters of the former regime, like Saddam Hussein's daughter, Raghad, but most were middle class Sunnis.

In Jordan these refugees have an uncertain status. They are referred to as guests, not refugees and year-long residency permits are hard to obtain. The vast majority were granted short stays in the country, which since 2005 have become virtually impossible to renew. Without official paperwork the refugees are not allowed to work.

Life became more uncomfortable for the refugees when Iraqi bombers attacked three hotels in Amman in 2005, killing 57 people. Those attacks had been ordered by the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Wreckage left in the wake of the Jordan embassy bombing
Jordan's embassy was bombed in Baghdad in 2003

As a predominantly Sunni country, Jordan has also found it hard to adjust to the new realities of Iraq, where the Shias form the majority and are now the most powerful sect. In 2004 King Abdullah famously remarked that a "Shiite crescent" was stretching from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon.

The King, who normally chooses his words carefully, is said to have regretted the remark later but the phrase demonstrated how he and other Sunni Arab leaders felt as sectarian violence began to take hold in Iraq.

Then came a dramatic worsening of Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq, with the sectarian bloodshed of 2005-2007 and now a slow improvement in security.

Improving relations

Perhaps most important were the Iraqi security forces operations against the Mehdi Army, a Shia militia earlier this year. They marked a change in Iraq's relations with its Sunni neighbours.

Many Arab governments were reassured that Prime Minister Maliki, who is a Shia, was prepared to take on a militia within his own community.

The rejuvenated diplomatic relations between Jordan and Iraq should benefit both sides. The Iraqi government has agreed to renew a 2006 agreement to sell much-needed cheap oil to Jordan.

The Iraqi government will take credit for its improved ties with Arab countries and the US administration will take heart that Sunni states are becoming more engaged in Iraq, as a counter-balance to continued Iranian involvement in the country.

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