Iraq’s PM Sets a New Course Amid Persistent Domestic and Regional Challenges

  • 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.

Edited by Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi signaled last week that Iraq was ready to begin playing, once again, a significant role in the security and stability of the region. That commitment was followed by a high-profile meeting among the leaders of Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt, who were keen to express their support for a joint and comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestine and concerns about the destabilizing role of some state and non-state actors in the region. And yet, in a sign of the challenges that lie ahead, US airstrikes against Iranian-backed militants on the Syrian-Iraqi border threaten to upend Mr. Kadhimi’s efforts to chart a new path for his country.

In an op-ed published by Asharq Alawast The Iraqi PM laid out his vision for how Iraq could reestablish trust, calling for more openness, engagement, and cooperation among the countries in the region : It is time for us to assert aloud that we, as Arab peoples, deserve to remember our common denominators and our origin, and to support each other in rising to face tomorrow’s challenges – even those unknown to us today…. It has now become necessary for us to interact with our neighbors from other nations, to engage in honest dialogue about our fears and concerns and to listen openly to theirs as well…. Stability, peace, cooperation, growth and common security in our region are strategic goals that will frame the next stage, not as isolated perceptions or readings, but as an expression of a fateful necessity, the key word for which is reestablishing trust.

Mr.Kadhimi’s statement was carefully timed to coincide with a visit to the Iraqi capital by Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s Presidentel-Sisi. Rudaw‘s Dilan Sirwan reports that in many ways,the meeting builds on precedents set up by former PM Adil Abdul Mahdi, under whom Iraq placed emphasis on cooperation and improved relations with neighboring countries – including Egypt and Jordan. Iraq and Jordan signed an agreement in February 2019 through which Iraq would lift tariffs on Jordanian products, while Jordan would buy 10,000 barrels of oil per day from Iraq. Iraq,Jordan and Egypt agreed on closer economic cooperation in March 2019, when a first summit was held in Cairo. The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research signed a three-year deal with Egypt to strengthen collaboration between universities in both countries back in November, a month after a series of agreements was signed between both countries.

The meeting was of interest to many of Iraq’s neighbors, including the Syrian government. This explains the coverage of the event by the Syrian News Agency (SANA), according to which, “Iraq, Egypt and Jordan reiterated the need to reach a political solution to the crisis in Syria in a way that preserves its security, stability and territorial integrity. In a joint concluding statement by President of Egypt Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Prime Minister of Iraq Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, following a triple summit that brought them together in the capital city of Iraq, Baghdad, they said that they had reviewed the efforts to reach ipolitical solutions to the crises in the region, mainly in Syria, according to relevant resolutions of the Security Council and the approved references.”

The meeting of the three heads of state was generally received positively by observers, including Jerusalem Post’s SethFrantzman, who in an op-ed concluded that the leaders clearly showed that “Cairo and Baghdad are repositioning themselves as important regional centers after years of crises, conflict and the weakening of major states saw power shift to Turkey, Iran, Israel and Gulf nations…. This means what we are potentially seeing is a Baghdad-Cairo discussion that could shore up stability in the region after waves of terrorism and extremism…. The big three that met in Baghdad also discussed Libya and Yemen. They called for foreign mercenaries, a code word for Turkish-backed Syrians who Ankara dumped in Libya, to go back to Turkey. They also called for renewed efforts to reach a just and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians and for the creation of an independent Palestinian state.”

Despite the positive coverage, reporting on the meeting and the emerging narrative that ensued were highjacked by news of US airstrikes on Iranian-backed fighters operating along the Iraqi-Syrian border. The US airstrikes were condemned by the Iraqi president,as well as by the spokesman for Commander in Chief Major General Yahya Rasoul, who, according to the Iraqi News Agency confirmed… “that the US attack on the border is a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Rasoul said in a statement received by the Iraqi News Agency (INA): We condemn the US air strikes, which targeted a site on the Iraqi-Syrian border last night, affirming that it was a massive and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi national security in accordance with all international conventions.Iraq renews its refusal to be a battleground for settling scores, adheres to its right to sovereignty over its lands, and to prevent its use as an arena for reactions and attacks, Rasoul added.”

The Iranian daily Tehran Times also published a statement by the militant organization targeted by the United States, vowing to “avenge the blood of our righteous martyrs and wreak vengeance on the perpetrators of this heinous crime. They also warned the U.S. against repeating its aggression. Earlier in the day, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada group, which operates under the command of Hashdal-Shaabi, warned of severe retaliation. From now on, we will enter an open war with the American occupation. The first of which is targeting its hostile aircraft in the sky over our beloved Iraq, the group said. According to Press TV, the group stressed that the US bases in Iraq are within the range of our missiles and we would avenge the blood of our martyrs.”

The prime minister’s message of stability and trust also belies ongoing reports of renewed Kurdish infighting, which as Mohammed Hussein and others point out for Iraq Oil Report is quickly becoming a “[d]eadly conflict between the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the dominant ruling party of Iraqi Kurdistan, [and]is threatening to shatter an informal truce that has largely kept the peace between the rival Kurdish groups for more than two decades. If it escalates further, the renewed violence could destabilize both the political and security dynamics of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and put oil fields and exports at risk.”

Finally, all of this istaking place only months before the October 10 parliamentary elections in Iraq, which are likely to be preceded and followed by greater turmoil and to be exploited by Iraq’s neighbors.The National’s Mina Aldroubi recalls the dynamics surrounding the early vote for the parliament something which was a central demand of anti-government protesters who staged mass demonstrations in 2019. They called on the government to bring forward elections that were to be held in May 2022…. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in Baghdad and the southern provinces to voice their anger and frustration at the government’s inability to fight corruption and provide them with security and stability. Demonstrators have been calling for an end to endemic corruption among a political class that is largely seen as having squandered Iraq”s resources through greed and mismanagement.

  • 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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