BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia will repatriate all Iraqi prisoners in Saudi jails under a new agreement, Iraq’s national security advisor said on Tuesday, a move that could help slowly warming ties between the two nations.
The agreement, struck during a visit by national security advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, would repatriate the 434 Iraqis being held in Saudi prisons.
“It’s a huge step forward in our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Rubaie said in a telephone interview.
The agreement must be approved by Iraq’s cabinet and its parliament, he added.
Rubaie described the Iraqi prisoners bring held in Saudi Arabia as drug traffickers, Iraqis who had crossed into the Gulf kingdom illegally, and other criminals, including “terrorists”.
He said those who had served less than half their sentences would be put into Iraqi jails, and the rest would be released.
The deal comes as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government, hoping to capitalize on a sharp drop in violence in Iraq, slowly reestablishes deeper diplomatic relations with its mostly Sunni-led Arab neighbors.
Despite Washington’s pressure on its Arab allies to embrace Baghdad fully, Iraq’s neighbors are moving cautiously.
Last month, Jordan’s King Abdullah became the first Arab leader to visit Iraq since the U.S-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
He was followed by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and Iraqi officials say that Kuwait’s prime minister will visit Iraq after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“The political engagement of the government of Iraq with its neighbors — and Saudi Arabia is one of our big neighbors, we share 860 km (516 miles) of borders with them — I think it’s a huge success,” Rubaie said.
Officials have said Saudi Arabia could reopen an embassy in Baghdad shortly.
“It should be soon, especially after the considerable reduction in violence,” Rubaie said.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Riyadh joined the U.S.-led coalition that drove Iraq out of the tiny Gulf state the following year.
Saudi Arabia, with the world’s largest oil reserves, has long been one of Washington’s closest allies in the region.
But Saudi Arabia, a largely Sunni Arab country, has kept Maliki’s government at arm’s length since 2003.
During the visit, Rubaie met with Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz and intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul-Aziz, Rubaie’s office said in a statement.