Back in Iraq, mindfully optimistic

Parker and Rasheed are Times staff writers.

Ambassador Ali Mumin dug into his Iraqi-style meat kebab in a small restaurant at the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone. He let out a laugh, nonchalant about his task: reopening Kuwait’s embassy in Iraq, 18 years after Saddam Hussein’s army invaded his oil-rich emirate.

The retired general, who served with Kuwaiti forces alongside the Americans in the 1991 Persian Gulf War that followed the invasion, was ensconced Wednesday at the hotel, once used by the elite of Hussein’s regime. And he is glad to be here.

Partway through his first day as Kuwaiti ambassador, Mumin had already presented his credentials to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Then he settled in at the Rashid, dressed in traditional white robes with a brown overcoat and a starchy tribal headdress, a gold bracelet jangling on his wrist.

Mumin, accompanied by bodyguards, joked with friends and celebrated this milestone in the two nations’ sometimes bitter history.


The diplomat was tapped for this job more than two years ago, but the time wasn’t right, he said.

“Now that the Iraq government has succeeded in the political and security areas, there is enough justification for Kuwait to be represented in Baghdad instead of waiting any longer,” he said between sips of tea. “We can’t abandon our brothers. We aim to reach them and we aim to establish a long-lasting relationship.”

Kuwait isn’t the only Arab country to upgrade its ties with Iraq. Since 2003, the primarily Sunni Muslim Arab world has viewed Iraq with suspicion, both for the country’s occupation by U.S. forces and for its new Shiite power brokers, many of whom have close ties to regional rival Iran. An Egyptian diplomat posted to Baghdad was kidnapped and slain by a militant Sunni group in 2005.

Now, motivated by a wish for better ties and an unwillingness to cede ground to Iran, Arab states have started to return. This month, Bahrain, Jordan and Syria posted ambassadors to Baghdad; the United Arab Emirates did the same last month.

“The Iraqi government has made a good effort to reach the Arabs and prove to them they really consider themselves members of the Arab League and Arab nation,” Mumin said.

The retired general has bad memories of Hussein. He doesn’t even like to say the name. He remembers watching the 1990 invasion of Kuwait unfold on television from the North African city of Tunis, where he was posted. There he saw then-Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz denounce the government of Kuwait, which Hussein considered a renegade province of Iraq.

Then there were the days in Saudi Arabia, where the Kuwaiti military gathered and hoped the U.S. troop buildup on the desert peninsula would lead to a ground offensive to liberate his country. He smiled Wednesday as he remembered the American special forces informing them they needed men for urban fighting -- a sure sign the U.S. would enter Kuwait.

American troops did so on Feb. 24, 1991, driving out the Iraqis in four days.

Long ago, Mumin made his peace with the past. He emphasizes that he blames Hussein and not the Iraqi people for the invasion. He calls the Iraqis his brothers and tells a story he heard of an Iraqi soldier who stopped a Kuwaiti at a checkpoint during the occupation of Kuwait and found guns in his trunk. The Iraqi soldier let the man go, Mumin said, telling him he was brave and fighting for his country.

Mumin hasn’t forgotten war, but he knows the Iraqis have suffered. “There was something imposed on our two nations, and thank God this is behind us now.”

Since 2003, Mumin has visited Iraq as Kuwait’s point man for humanitarian issues concerning his neighbor.

He has great hopes and knows there are tough matters to tackle, including Iraq’s wish for Kuwait to forgive billions of dollars of debt owed from the Hussein era, and the reparations Iraq still pays over the 1990 invasion.

Mindful of Iraq’s dangers, Mumin has no immediate plans to travel beyond the fortified Green Zone. He is not sure what the emirate plans to do with its old embassy, which has been abandoned since 1990. “We’ll creep, then walk, then run,” he joked, marveling at his presence in a Baghdad hotel.