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Ex: Europe, Middle East, Education

Letter from Baghdad: a window of opportunity for Europe in Iraq?

BLOG - 28 January 2019

In a Middle East plagued with so many upheavals, the news coming from Iraq have been rather good so far: the great city of Mosul has been reconquered over Isis, giving Iraqis a new sense of national pride; the divisions that emerged between the Kurds and the rest of the country after the independence referendum in September 2017 have subsided; the parliamentary elections necessary for the country's political reconstruction have gone almost without a hitch.
 
These elections led to a national redistribution of power, and the appointment of a Prime Minister, Mr. Adel Abdel-Mahdi, valued for his experience, moderation and ability to balance between different sectarian and political factions. The personality of the new President, Mr. Barham Saleh, is also a guarantee of reconciliation.
 
A new atmosphere has emerged in Baghdad, where a desire for independence from the foreign influences still omnipresent in the country, particularly from Iran and the United States, is being asserted. The elements thus seem to be in place for the Iraqi state to gradually regain full sovereignty and even exercise a positive regional influence.

A new atmosphere has emerged in Baghdad, where a desire for independence from the foreign influences still omnipresent in the country is being asserted.

As a sign of this dynamic, an unusual conference has just been held in the Iraqi capital under the banner of the Baghdad Policy Club, with the sponsorship of the Prime Minister, to discuss what Iraq's future role in the region might be. It brought together experts from Iraq, the Gulf, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Russia and Europe. Institut Montaigne was represented there.

The first impression that emerges from these discussions is cautious optimism. Optimism, because democracy seems to be taking hold for the first time in Iraq. The ethnic-confessional factor, which has been an essential element of the division of power in Iraq since the British mandate to the pro-Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki in the aftermath of the American intervention, as well as Saddam Hussein's Sunni Baath, seems to be fading behind an Iraqi national feeling. The events in Basra last October, during which the Iranian and US consulates were ransacked by the crowd, illustrated a popular aspiration that is strongly echoed in the political sphere in the capital.
 
On the economic front, the fundamentals have been improved by the previous government. Mr. Adel Abdel-Mahdi seems to be the right man for the situation to start the gigantic reconstruction works necessary in the aftermath of Isis, and the development of the infrastructures that have been neglected for decades. It should also be noted that the new Prime Minister was educated in France, and that he is counting on special support from France.
 
However, this optimism must be cautious, as the Iraqi rule of law remains fragile and political deadlocks persist. Corruption leads to a delegitimization of power, which extends to the entire political class. The institutional balance also remains precarious: four months after the appointment of the Prime Minister, two regalian ministries (Interior and Defence) have yet to find their ministers.

In an aside, an adviser to the Prime Minister confessed that the latter perhaps did not wish to rush into the allocation of these strategic portfolios, in order not to upset the factions that would be frustrated by his choices. He added, in the same vein, that the fight against corruption is a long-term task, which cannot be effectively carried out in a too frontal manner. The 2005 Constitution, which provides for a federal organization of the State, is still not fully implemented: in practice, the Chamber of Confederate States does not meet, and only Kurdistan has a real administrative and financial autonomy.

Seen from Baghdad, only Europeans can counterbalance Iran's omnipresent influence, and the fluctuating presence of the United States.

More importantly, the Popular Mobilization - the great militia established against Isis following a fatwa of Ayatollah Sistani - intends to be part of the political landscape in the long term. Like other armed groups, it succeeded in getting representatives elected to Parliament in the last elections, in a process that some observers call, for lack of a better term, a "hezbollahisation" of the Iraqi militias. The challenge for the Iraqi government is to integrate these forces into an institutional framework, a prerequisite for the restoration of an Iraqi army that truly guarantees national sovereignty, and to prevent these militias from polarizing political life along religious lines that were indeed fading away.
 
The silent struggle for regional influences in Baghdad continues, relying on ethnic-confessional clientelism among the Iraqi population. Thus, Mr. Barzani and his family have regained the favour of Tehran and Baghdad, despite having initiated the referendum on Kurdish self-determination ferociously fought by Iran and the central government. Tehran remains the most influential actor in Baghdad, due to deep cultural and religious ties that go beyond the mere presence of militias of Iranian allegiance in Iraq. Nevertheless, Baghdad is successfully playing its Arabism card to invite the Gulf countries (notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) to reinvest in the country.
 
Iraq, finally, remains under the control of the United States, but is part, more by necessity than by choice, of the Iranian-Russian coalition supporting Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

Adel Abdel-Mahdi offer a new model to the region: secular, multi-confessional, democratic, federal, in contrast to the semi-theocratic Iranian model on the one hand, and the Turkish model, perceived as increasingly authoritarian and religious, on the other.

Does Baghdad have the means, in this complex environment, to pursue a regional political agenda? Iraq will unlikely be able to play any stabilizing role as long as the competition between Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the United States on the other hand does not diminish. Baghdad must also guard against the consequences of further Syrian turbulences, which has already forced thousands of refugees to flee to Iraq, mainly to Kurdish camps in the north of the country. The deadlocks that paralyse domestic policy are also an obstacle to the development of a coherent Iraqi foreign policy. Nevertheless, one of the Prime Minister's advisers considers that the Iraqis could have the ambition, in order to transcend their divisions, to offer a new model to the region: secular, multi-confessional, democratic, federal, in contrast to the semi-theocratic Iranian model on the one hand, and the Turkish model, perceived as increasingly authoritarian and religious, on the other.

A second impression emerges from local testimonies: Iraq is waiting for Europe. Seen from Baghdad, only Europeans can counterbalance Iran's omnipresent influence, and the fluctuating presence of the United States, whose aspired role is unclear, and can play a role in the region in the medium term. Russian influence in Baghdad is neither perceived as stabilizing: Moscow's interests in Iraq, according to Russian experts' own admission, are limited to the fight against terrorism and energy (exploitation and transport of oil that is abundant in the subsoil of southern Iraqi territory).
 
Where the Saudi-Iranian balance of power takes the form of a zero-sum game, European influence, perceived as politically neutral from Baghdad, is therefore welcomed, in line with cooperation already underway in the fields of water, energy, infrastructure, education, governance and reconciliation dialogue. Europeans are also distinguished from other external powers - including China, which is obviously omnipresent in the economy - by its commitment to the rule of law and democracy, and its interest in civil society. A fact that is rare enough to be highlighted in the Middle East, Member States are not divided by divergent interests. They could exert more pressure for a greater involvement of the European institutions (neither Mrs Mogherini nor any Commissioner visited Baghdad after the Kuwait conference in February, which mobilized international contributions for post-Islamic state reconstruction).
 
If they agree to invest resources in Iraq, Europeans have now a window of opportunity in that country to develop a coherent plan, where the United States and Russia, despite their resources, may lack a long-term vision. One could even imagine that their role in defending the nuclear agreement with Iran is worth enough credit to Tehran to encourage Iran not to overplay its role in Iraq.

 

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