Iraq Seeks Better Ties with Regional Powers

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The security situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, despite concerted efforts to roll back the advances of the Islamic State OF Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, also known as ISIL, IS, and Daesh). Plunging oil prices have not helped stabilize the beleaguered country. On the diplomatic front, Baghdad is seeking better relations with regional heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia. No one expects decade long enmities to thaw in a matter of months, but the new diplomatic moves are seen as a positive sign that the country may finally be ready to move beyond the current period of instability.

In an op-ed for Al Arabiya, Masood Ahmed highlights the challenging security and economic conditions under which the Iraqi government is constrained to work, by pointing out that “Iraq is facing a ‘double shock’ from the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgency and the global plunge in oil prices. While the new government led by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi was formed with the express objective of dealing with the insurgency and addressing the humanitarian disaster it has caused, it is now facing another threat, this time of an economic nature, which brings into sharp focus the underlying vulnerabilities inherent in the country’s heavy reliance on oil….How should Iraqi policy makers react to this difficult situation? The government’s highest priority is clearly resolving the security situation. But to do so, it needs a realistic and coherent fiscal policy that can support an effective use of the oil resources and strengthen government credibility vis-à-vis its international partners.”

The importance of shoring up its economic situation is demonstrated by the continuing threat of ISIS, which, according to the Iraq website Azzaman, has not diminished significantly, despite Iraqi and U.S. efforts: “Islamic State’s military leaders are pursuing fresh media and war tactics in a bid to raise morale and strengthen positions in areas under its control in the northern and western parts of Iraq. The parliamentary Defense and Security Commission says the group’s hold of the city of Mosul, Iraq’ second largest, has not been shaken despite hundreds of raids by U.S. and allied warplanes. But the commission claimed the raids were causing trouble for the jihadist organization and some have targeted its senior leaders in the area. Kurdish and Iraqi forces have made some advances by retaking certain villages and driving the militants further back.”

A similarly pessimistic assessment of the offensive against ISIS (also known as ISIL) is also reflected in a recent op-ed on The National by Hassan Hassan: “The numbers seem to indicate ISIL is being hit where it hurts. It has lost most of the resources that had made it the richest terror group on the planet, as well as several of its top leaders….But these numbers do not indicate that ISIL is retreating….It is important to distinguish between ISIL’s territory and other military front lines where ISIL was on the offensive against Iraqi government troops and militias. While ISIL has been contained in areas where it previously benefited from the disorganization of its foes, it still reigns supreme in most of the areas it has controlled since June….In terms of governance, one should recognize that ISIL’s model is different from that of other groups: it is a manager more than a provider….Despite what numbers say, ISIL is still in full control of its territory and sometimes on the offensive in enemy territory.”

There are those, like Gulf News’ Mohammad Akef Jamal, who believe that the current security situation in Iraq reflects decades old dynamics, which means that “The current violence in Iraq is not the result of today’s actions alone. Nor is it the will of a handful of militia leaders alone. A situation such as this cannot prevail unless there is a strong culture of violence in the community that has deep roots that have strengthened as a result of pain, sadness, frustration and hatred in people over many years….Violence in Iraq is inseparable from the paralysis that has infected the national consciousness. Most political elites in Iraq today have nothing to do with national values, concepts and beliefs. They have come up based on race, creed, sect or region. It is not easy to eliminate violence in Iraq without a strong government that imposes peace and security. For this to be achieved, a strong-willed government must be in place to put an end to outside interference and work for constitutional reforms.”

Whether the current government is strong-willed enough or not remains to be seen, but there is no question Prime Minister’s Haider Abadi’s government is seriously considering several alternatives to deal with the security situation. According to a report by Azzaman’s Ali Kazeer one of those alternatives under consideration could very well be the reinstatement of military conscription: “The Defense Ministry must have everything ready to reinstate conscription in Iraq, Adnan al-Asadi, security affairs advisor to the Prime Minister Haider Abadi said. Asadi’s call for reinstating conscription comes as the country is engaged in ferocious fighting against Islamic State militants who control large areas of northern and western parts of Iraq….Conscription was abandoned in the aftermath of the 2003-U.S. invasion of Iraq. The army, a volunteer force, has dismally failed in confronting Islamic State militants who barged into Iraq in June last year from Syria….There are concerns in Iraq of the growing influence and role of militias in the fight against Islamic State since these irregular fighting groups owe their allegiance to their sects and factional leaders rather than the national flag.”

But it is unlikely that Iraq’s security situation will improve without the involvement of its neighbors. Among them, Iran has certainly been the most active, even though, as this report by Tehran Times indicates, there has been a reluctance to acknowledge the extent of Iran’s involvement in Iraq: “Commander of Iraq’s Badr Brigade Hadi al-Ameri says Iran is supporting the Iraqi army in the fight against the takfiri ISIL terrorists merely in the form of providing defense consultation and arms supply. In an interview with the Al-Alam news channel on Sunday, al-Ameri praised Iran for its backing in the fight against terrorism and said the Islamic republic does not have a military presence in the Arab country….Al-Ameri also rejected reports alleging that Iranian warplanes have been flying over Iraqi borders to attack ISIL positions and said Baghdad would have asked for Iran’s airstrikes if it had needed.”

Wondering whether a similar level of involvement or cooperation will be forthcoming from its Gulf neighbors, Arab News’ Anwar Ashki has now doubts about Iran’s motives: “It was not out of friendship or loyalty that Iran helped Al-Maliki. It was Tehran’s vested interest in Iraq that led it to support Al- Maliki. Iran dispatched the commander of the Qods Force in the Revolutionary Guard, Qaseem Soleimani, to Baghdad to support Al-Maliki by providing training to Shiite fighters. Iran thus gained the ability to mobilize Shiite militias in Iraq to fight IS and formed the Badr Corps. It also helped Moqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and many other smaller militias to ensure protection of Shiite shrines and to promote its agenda. The edict issued by Ayatollah Sistani to Shiite militias to join government forces to fight IS also spurred support….In such a situation, one question has become relevant: Will the Gulf states help Iraq and its Sunni population?”

Iraq’s overtures toward its other neighbors have been more transparent, albeit equally complicated. Mahmoud Mostafa, writing for the The Daily News of Egypt, reports that this week, the Iraq prime minister visited the Egyptian president in an effort to find new ways of cooperating on security as well as economics: “President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi in Cairo on Sunday, to discuss bilateral relations and cooperation between the two countries. During the presidential palace meeting, Al-Sisi also asserted that Egypt supports Iraq in its war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS). Al-Sisi said his government’s would provide aid and support to Iraq, asserting that ‘Egypt’s security is entwined with Iraqi security’….Al-Abadi met also with Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, with whom he discussed an agreement to provide Egypt with Iraqi oil. He said during a press conference with Mehleb that ‘we are seeking common interests with Egyptians and this is something important’.”

Iraq’s prime minister has had a busy few days considering that prior to his visit to Egypt, Arab News announced the reopening of the Saudi Embassy in Iraq, with the former characterizing the act ‘a historic development’: “Now under Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, Iraq is trying to confront its demons. He and his government have an immense task putting together what Maliki’s lack of wisdom had torn apart. It is not simply that the central government needs to win back the trust of alienated Sunnis, it also has to cope with the terror threat of the rabid IS….In all of these daunting tasks, the Kingdom wishes to do its best to help. The very act of reopening its embassy in Baghdad is a powerful signal of Saudi endorsement of the new Iraqi leadership. The establishment of a consulate in the Kurdish heartland of Erbil is a further signal that the Kingdom wants to fully understand the complex challenges facing its neighbor….Once the terrorist threat has been defeated and the territorial integrity of Iraq restored, the warm bilateral relations that are now being re-established, will endure.”

In the aftermath of the announcement, some observers, including Asharq Alawsat’s  Abdulrahman Al-Rashed have questioned whether following decades of enmity between the two countries, “relations between Iraq [and] Saudi Arabia [can] improve…. the relationship between the two is certainly capable of either leading the region towards security or dragging it toward further turbulence….A cause for concern for Saudi Arabia is the Iranian infiltration of Iraq and Iran’s attempt to subjugate Iraq to its influence under the excuse of fighting terrorism. Riyadh cannot do anything about this. However, the Iraqi leadership must accept its responsibility to confront the reality of this and maintain Iraqi sovereignty and reject Iranian interference, which will be difficult for the Iraqis to curb in the future. Iraq is not a small or poor country and should not need a foreign power to protect it and guarantee its internal security.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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