Lebanon Prime Minister Heads To Iraq

Fuad Siniora is expected to arrive in Baghdad Wednesday. Relations are improving between Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and the Arab world's Sunni leaders.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, she's the talk of Beijing now, the long distance swimmer, an athlete who is also an amputee. First, there's news from Iraq, and in a sense, it's news because it shouldn't be, the kind of thing that happens in normal countries all time.

The prime minister from neighboring Lebanon is in Baghdad for a visit. He's just the second Arab leader to make a visit to Iraq since the invasion five years ago. At a press conference, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora said that it's time for the Arab world to work together again.

Prime Minister FUAD SINIORA (Lebanon): (Through translator) We are expecting great challenges in the near to middle future across the Arab lands, but we cannot face those challenges unless there is more cooperation between our two countries.

CHADWICK: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is on the line from Baghdad. Lourdes, welcome back to Day to Day. These are nice words from the prime minister, but what does it really mean?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that the visit is a sign of improving relations between the Arab world and Iraq. He said the visit represents a return of normality to Iraq. But these visits are for now clearly symbolic, but the symbolism is really important. Since the U.S.-lead invasion, Iraq's Arab neighbors have politically isolated this country.

No Arab leaders came to visit. No embassies were opened. Iraq was essentially treated as a kind of pariah. They were deeply suspicious of Iraq's Shiite-led government. They thought that it was sectarian in nature at best, and at worst it was a puppet regime, backed by the Americans and in the thrall of Iran.

And while these Sunni-Arab led states, like Saudi and Jordan and Syria and the Golf states were refusing to really work with the Shiite government here, Iran did step in. They've had an embassy here for a long time, an ambassador here for a long time. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came here in March with a lot of fanfare. Only slowly have these Arab states come around.

CHADWICK: How much of a role is the U.S. playing in prompting these visits? There was a earlier visit from King Hussein in Jordan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There was. He was the first Arab leader to come and visit, and that only took place 10 days ago. So I think it's a real sign how deeply suspicious Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors were.

Also, a sign that things are changing. And the Americans have tried desperately for these many years to get many of these countries to get involved in brokering negotiations between the Sunni and the Shiites, and they really haven't stepped up to that. But we're seeing it happening more and more. And I have to say the United States is very, very pleased.

Now, why it's happening now? Security is better, that's certainly the case. But also, the Americans are now talking about pulling out of this country.

CHADWICK: Are the Saudis coming? Are the Egyptians coming?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, actually, that's one of the key things here. There's a glaring omission to all these Arab countries coming in, and that's Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the heavy weight of this region, and they have yet to make any real overtures here. The lack of Saudi Arabia is a pretty big omission.

CHADWICK: You know, Lourdes, you say that these are symbolic visits anyway. What could they do to make them more substantive?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, one of the key things is, of course, forgiving Iraq's very hefty debt, and we really haven't seen that happen in any substantial way. It's one of the things the Iraqi government has been asking at every single meeting that it attends with the Arab world, and so far, we really haven't seen the Arab world step up to help the Iraqis.

CHADWICK: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro from Baghdad. Lourdes, thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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