BAGHDAD The United Arab Emirates announced Thursday it will name an ambassador to Baghdad in the coming days, the first Arab country to restore full diplomatic ties to Iraq since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The announcement, made in Baghdad by the country's foreign minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, follows strong U.S. pressure for Arab countries to play a bigger political role here to counter Iranian influence and promote reconciliation between Iraq's rival Sunni and Shiite communities.
Many of the Mideast's Sunni-led governments have been wary of establishing a full diplomatic presence in Baghdad because of security fears and mistrust of the Shiite-led government's ties to Iran, which has a fully accredited ambassador here.
"We will hold talks to name the ambassador in the coming few days," Al Nahyan said. "We also hope that as soon as possible ... and I am talking here about a few weeks we will see an active Emirates embassy in Baghdad."
He said "the time has come" for Arab countries "to forge strong ties with Iraq."
U.S. and Iraqi officials praised the United Arab Emirates' decision and hoped other Arab governments would follow suit.
"This reflects, I think, an appreciation on the part of the Arabs that things are different in Iraq, both in security terms and in political terms," the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, told reporters in Washington.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said the move was an important signal that Iraq is "hopefully getting back on a path to normal and good relations with its neighbors in the region."
In Cairo, Egypt, Mohammed Said Edris, an analyst as the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said he expected other Arab countries to follow the UAE move because Iran is increasing its influence in Iraq "and it is about time that Arabs rectify this situation."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is expected to visit Iran on Saturday, and many Sunni-led Arab governments remain deeply suspicious of Iraq's ties to its Shiite-dominated neighbor.<
Also Thursday, the U.S. military announced that an American soldier was killed the day before in action south of Baghdad. The soldier's name was withheld until the family could be notified.
A U.S.-backed Iraqi force raided a Sunni village early Thursday near Kirkuk, detaining three men believed members of Ansar al-Sunnah, a militant Sunni group, police reported.
The absence of fully accredited Arab ambassadors in Baghdad reflects the complex and ambivalent relationship between Iraq and the rest of the Arab world since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam's regime in 2003.
Most Arab governments sent diplomats here following Saddam's fall but refused to establish high-level relations to avoid the appearance that they endorsed foreign military occupation of an Arab country.
The Arabs softened their stand after an elected Iraqi government took power in 2005. But Sunni militant groups, especially al-Qaida in Iraq, warned Arab states not to open embassies, a move the extremists feared would bolster the Iraqi government and its U.S. backers.
Despite the threat, Egypt dispatched a high-ranking diplomat to head its mission, and Iraqi officials said he would be accredited as the first Arab ambassador since Saddam's ouster.
But the envoy was kidnapped and murdered in July 2005. Diplomats from Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, the UAE and Sudan were either killed, wounded or kidnapped in a series of attacks, some of which were claimed by al-Qaida.
With recent improvements in security, however, the United States has renewed pressure on the Arabs to play a greater diplomatic, political and economic role in Iraq.
Kuwait has said it is scouting possible sites for an embassy in Baghdad's U.S.-guarded Green Zone. Saudi Arabia announced last September that it would open a Baghdad embassy "soon." Later, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saudi al-Faisal said security conditions were not yet right.
Al-Maliki chided his Arab "brothers" at an April conference of Iraq's neighbors in Kuwait, saying he found it "difficult to explain why diplomatic exchange has not taken place."
"Many foreign countries have kept their diplomatic missions in Baghdad and did not make security excuses," al-Maliki said at the time.
The United Arab Emirates, with a population of about 5 million, is well-positioned to make the first move. It is a major regional financial center with close ties to Iran, the United States and its fellow Arab states.
Its decision to establish full diplomatic ties could give UAE companies an advantage in exploiting Iraq's vast economic potential, including the world's third-largest oil reserves.
Al-Maliki said Thursday that he hoped UAE companies would invest in Iraq "to enhance cooperation between the two countries, especially in the economic and investment levels."
Also Thursday, the country's Industry and Minerals Ministry said it would open 22 state-run companies to outside investment.
Deputy Minister Adel Karim told reporters Iraq is looking for investors to rehabilitate and manage industrial plants according to production-sharing agreements. The companies are spread over five fields: engineering, reconstruction, textiles, chemical and petrochemical and food and medicine.
Investors have until July 10 to submit their proposals, Karim said.