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Exclusive - Iraq Forges ahead in Striking Tricky Balances with Regional Countries

Exclusive - Iraq Forges ahead in Striking Tricky Balances with Regional Countries

Saturday, 23 March, 2019 - 08:45
Iraq's President Barham Salih walks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a welcome ceremony at the Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, March 11, 2019. (Reuters)
Baghdad – Hamza Mustafa
Despite its internal, mainly political problems, Iraq has for the most part closed the chapter on its war on ISIS. All that remain are some sleeper cells and terrorist pockets. Baghdad is now turning to policies that will help it avoid costly obstacles caused by the imbalance in its foreign Arab, regional and international ties.

The past few months have seen major world leaders pay visits to Iraq, such as Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and most significantly, US President Donald Trump. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then followed, as did a Saudi delegation headed by Minister of Trade Majed al-Qasabi and later, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Talks with all of these officials focused on politics, security and the economy. Iraq, for its part, sought to achieve the greatest possible balance it its ties with these countries, in spite of the conflicts between them, such as the dispute between the US and Iran, and Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Iraqi leaders, themselves and with the exception of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, have paid visits to regional countries. President Barham Salih made trips to each of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Salih received on Tuesday US special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS James Jeffrey. He stressed to his guest the importance of striking a balance in relations with the US, on the one hand, and “brothers and friends”, on the other. An Iraqi presidential statement said that Baghdad was keen on expanding cooperation with Washington on all levels, but it was also eager to “build ties with brothers and friends in order to achieve higher national interests.”

Coinciding with Jeffrey’s visit was a trip by an Iraqi military delegation to Damascus to discuss the alliance between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Russia and coordinate security and counter-terrorism efforts.

America: Stay or leave?
Amid these developments, the US was considering its troop deployment in Iraq, an issue that has become a source of contention in the country. This debate has, however, not been linked to waivers granted by the US to Iraq over sanctions it has imposed against Iran. Just this week, Washington granted Baghdad a 90-day waiver from sanctions to buy energy from Iran because, as of yet, Iraq has not found alternatives to power from its neighbor.

On the US troop deployment, national security professor at the Nahrain University, Dr. Hussein Allawi told Asharq Al-Awsat that the US bases in Iraq were more like security liaison centers with joint Iraqi forces. Claims of the presence of American military bases are rumors that are invested for “propaganda” purposes. They are also an attempt to move the regional and international conflict between the US and Iran to Iraq, he explained.

Abdul Mahdi has repeatedly asserted that there were no American bases or combat forces in his country, saying the only troops were advisers who train Iraqi security forces.

Iran: Interest or subordination?
Meanwhile, Rouhani’s three-day visit to Iraq fell very short of Tehran’s expectations. During his visit, he met with Iraq’s highest Shiite religious authority Ali al-Sistani, and senior ayatollahs in al-Najaf. The meeting with Sistani was the most significant of all as during his meetings with Iraqi political leaderships, none of them instructed Rouhani on how to deal with the sovereignty of countries based on common interests. Sistani did.

A statement from his office said that he welcomed any step that would bolster Iraq’s relations with its neighbors according to their mutual interests and respect of sovereignty. The most important challenges facing Iraq were combating corruption, improving public services and limiting the possession of arms in the hands of the state and its security agencies.

Shiite cleric Haidar al-Gharabi told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Rouhani-Sistani meeting will play a role in several Iraqi affairs, most notably its foreign policy. Iran is an important international player in the region and Iraq and therefore the understanding with the higher religious authority in al-Najaf fits into the role is trying to play, he said.

Sistani cannot ignore this role and its impact on Iraq, he added.

Leading member of the Reform and Reconstruction parliamentary bloc Haidar al-Malla stressed the importance of Iraq building balanced ties with its neighbors based on the respect of sovereignty and refraining from interfering in their internal affairs.

He warned to Asharq Al-Awsat, however, that Iran is currently suffering from international isolation due to Washington’s sanctions. It may therefore, seek to transform Iraq into an arena where it could seek relief from the weight of the sanctions. This was reflected in Rouhani’s statements prior to his Iraq trip when he said he was keen on reviving economic cooperation with Baghdad.

Balance of interests
Ultimately, Tehran and Baghdad signed agreements to raise trade from $13 billion to $20 billion. Should this figure be achieved, then Iran, not Turkey, will become Iraq’s greatest trade partner. With Jordan, Iraq inked deals on establishing a free trade zone and extending an oil pipeline to Jordan’s Aqaba port.

Observers viewed these moves as an attempt by Iraq to create a balance in its foreign ties, specifically with its neighbors. This will allow it shake off Iranian hegemony. Iraqi economic expert Dajmil Antoun told Asharq Al-Awsat that Iraq could never really abandon Iran, as demonstrated in the deals that were signed during Rouhani’s visit. Baghdad should, therefore, promote the slogan of “Iraq first” in order to avoid it becoming an Iranian pawn.

In order for this slogan to materialize, Iraq must strike a balance in relations with its neighbors, especially Arab countries. Salih had declared during his meeting with Rouhani that achieving security “requires cooperation with Iran and regional countries. Baghdad was the meeting point for these countries and we are determined to cooperate with everyone.”

“We do not want Iraq to become an arena for regional or international conflicts,” he stressed.

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