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Opportunities for a New French Approach in Iraq

Opportunities for a New French Approach in Iraq
 Anne Gadel
Former CEO of the Open Diplomacy Institute

In a mutating Middle East as a result of the American withdrawal and the upheavals of the multipolar "dis-order", Iraq is keen to assert itself as a stabilizing pivot, even though it faces different challenges. In this context, French leadership in the region is supported by a renewed approach to its Iraqi policy, after decades in a relative back seat, which opens up opportunities to develop a rich bilateral relationship.

The war in Ukraine is reshuffling the cards in the Middle East, as it is everywhere for that matter. And Iraq is no exception. The country exhibited a "wait-and-see" attitude, seen not only in that it aligned itself with the Arab League's February 28 statement of not wanting to offend anyone and simply pleading for a "diplomatic solution", but also by abstaining from the UN General Assembly vote on March 2. This passivity was justified by the risk of heightened tension within the country. As RUSI Associate Fellow Samuel Ramani points out, the polarization of public opinion "follows partisan and factional lines" that resonate with deep-seated anti-Americanism. Western sanctions on Russia also jeopardize substantial investments in Iraq's energy infrastructure, which could permanently destabilize the Iraqi economy despite the rise in hydrocarbon prices since the beginning of hostilities. The consequences of the war on the price of wheat and oil by-products, which rose to 20%, are already causing protests in a country that is also experiencing a record number of sandstorms, stemming from the desertification affecting nearly 40% of Iraq’s surface.

On the political front, Iraq is still waiting for a government, almost eight months after the October 2021 legislative elections. Moqtada al-Sadr, the versatile nationalist Shia cleric leader, who has a "neither West nor East" position, has emerged as the "kingmaker." As for Iraq’s Tishreen uprising (a mass protest movement against the system by youth activists which fall outside traditional ethnic and confessional lines), it has gradually taken shape politically despite numerous obstacles. This movement could be revived by the current upheavals and set the Iraqi street ablaze again.

On the political front, Iraq is still waiting for a government, almost eight months after the October 2021 legislative elections.

The rifts within the "Shiite House", between the Sadrist coalition of National Salvation (which includes the Sadrists, the KDP and the Sunni bloc of the Sovereign Alliance) and the "Coordination Framework" (including the State of Law coalition, the Fatah Alliance and unofficially the PUK and its affiliates) led by Nouri Al-Maliki, have so far failed to produce a consensus. As the quorum for a vote has not yet been reached, the constitutional deadlines to select both a president and government have largely passed.

In fact, forming a majority government to implement structural reforms, in contrast to the logic of consensus and national unity that has governed the formation of government teams since 2005, is increasingly becoming remote.

It will be up to such a government - whether it is a majority or a national unity government - to pursue the turnaround initiated by current Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi, which aims to put Iraq back at the center of a changing regional game. The Baghdad conference for cooperation and partnership represented the occasion for meetings between Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, something unthinkable just a few months ago. The Saudi-Iranian dialogue, which began in April 2021, continues after a short pause under the auspices of Baghdad and seems to be finally beginning to bear fruit, particularly in Yemen, with the potential restoration of bilateral diplomatic relations. Iraq also intends to be the driving force behind a new regional cooperation space around the trio it forms with Egypt and Jordan. The country acts as an honest broker in the Turkish-Emirati-Egyptian talks. Political and economic relations have also been renewed with the Arab powers of the Gulf (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). To avoid getting caught up in the tangle of U.S.-Iranian confrontations, Iraq is reviving its former role as a mediator and regional balancing power, turning its diversity into strength. 

So what about France?

The U.S. retreat from the region, the consolidation of a new generation of leaders in the Gulf, the economic consequences of the health crisis and the recent jolts to the multipolar "disorder" are leading countries within the region to rethink their diplomatic relations. Over a year after the Al-Ula summit, a thaw between Gulf countries and several rapprochements between enemy countries, and the Abraham Accords1, the logic of antagonistic axes that structured the region since the Arab spring is losing its consistency. 

Cinzia Bianco, Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, sees this loss in favor of what she describes as a "strategic pause" in the absence of a lasting turnaround, which has yet to be observed. 

In this context, and in parallel with a strengthened partnership with the Arab countries of the Gulf, French leadership in Iraq is based on a renewed policy approach. Everything contributes to turning Paris into the West's key player in Iraq, despite a "real risk that Iraq will be caught up in the Iran-China-Russia axis," according to Mounqit Dagher, Non Resident Senior Associate at CSIS. After a long period of close ties between France and Iraq, stemming from General de Gaulle and his successors’ Arab policy, the rupture of diplomatic relations in 1991 and then the 2003 U.S. invasion put Paris on the sidelines of Iraqi affairs for a while.

In this context, and in parallel with a strengthened partnership with the Arab countries of the Gulf, French leadership in Iraq is based on a renewed policy approach. 

In response to a shared sense of urgency as Daech consolidated its grip, France returned to Iraq through air support to the international coalition and still maintains a small contingent of men in the coalition today, mostly assigned to training missions for Iraqi special and counterterrorism forces. Since 2019, increased bilateral visits attest to France's firm intention to support Iraq's sovereignty and regional mediation strategy, setting the framework for a renewed bilateral relationship. The agenda of Emmanuel Macron's visit in early September 2021, on the sidelines of his participation in the Baghdad Regional Conference (the Kadhimiya Mosque and Shrine in Baghdad, the Al-Nouri Grand Mosque and Our Lady of the Hour in Mosul, and then Erbil) marks his willingness to balance Paris' relations with all communities. This commitment is echoed in the active involvement of the French ambassador in Baghdad, the French consulate in Erbil, and soon, the French consulate in Mosul. It is furthermore reinforced through French cooperation and development agencies, in order to strengthen bilateral relations across political, diplomatic, economic and cultural areas on the basis of the strategic roadmap signed in May 2019, and to actively participate in the reconstruction of Iraq.

At this crucial moment for both the future of Iraq and Franco-Iraqi relations, we are convinced that initiatives stemming from Iraqi civil society to promote dialogue between Europe and Iraq, and between communities, should get the support they deserve in Paris. This is why we are pleased to support the initiative of the EGRD e.V. to bring together French and Iraqi leaders to discuss these political, diplomatic, economic and cultural issues of mutual interest on June 2 in Paris. 

Normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (followed by Morocco and Sudan) signed between September and December 2020.



Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

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