Is there any doubt that Iraq’s foreign relations, especially those with Turkey and the Arab states, suffer from a systematic imbalance? We might attribute this imbalance to Iraqi politics, and — just as Iraq’s neighbors have stated — that the Iraqi government has not tried to build close ties with its Sunni Arab neighbors. Instead, it was led by impulse to build strategic relationships with Shiite Iran. We might even agree with the Iraqi government’s point of view, specifically that of the main Shiite parties, which believe that the neighboring Arab countries and Turkey — with their political method — have adopted a position of enmity since 2003 vis-à-vis the new Iraqi situation due to the “Shiite” regime in power.
However, attempts to reduce the political imbalance to an “ideological-sectarian” dispute won’t lead us anywhere. The historic, geographical, sectarian map makes it impossible to determine who is responsible for the Iraqi-Arab estrangement.
The truth is that this imbalance goes back to the pre-2003 period, specifically following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the former’s engagement ever since in a policy of turning its back on Arab countries. The general atmosphere of tension between Iraq and its neighboring countries goes back to the aggressive methods adopted by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Yet, the new Iraqi regime — founded on the ruins of its predecessor — has not succeeded much in rebuilding relations with neighboring countries. This brings up many questions, amid the insistence of those countries on turning Iraq into a playground for regional ambitions and settlements.
On the other hand, the discourse — full of sectarian rhetoric — only increased this estrangement, especially due to its connection to a stage of intense regional division between an Iranian-led camp and another camp led by countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Moreover, signs of division regarding the Syrian crisis have been extremely obvious.
We do not want to maintain any delusions that these circumstances did not create tension among the people of the region. However, this atmosphere of tension does not represent the essence and nature of the peoples’ natural choices, which are based on a deep-rooted common history and a shared language, in addition to governing geo-political considerations.
An Arab propaganda campaign accompanied the fall of Saddam’s regime and focused on creating the impression that Iraqi Shiites were dependant on Iran. This had entirely negative effects, as it incited angry reactions from the Shiite public — which considered themselves first and foremost Arabs — and therefore viewed this propaganda as a superficial understanding of their positions.
Also, Iraqi political voices — especially those of the Shiites — attempted to fuel the flames of sectarian tension by further deepening mutual misunderstanding and increasing Shiite fears of a Sunni region trying to exploit Iraq.
Iraq’s foreign policy wasn’t up to the level of being able to restore normal relations with the region. In many cases, Iraqi political forces were lured into adopting a tense discourse, which was understood in the Arab world as a “Shiite bias.” On the other hand, Arab policies regarding the new Iraq were not typical. Arab states boycotted and isolated Iraq, and adopted a treacherous discourse towards it. These were only a few of the characteristics of these states’ interactions with Iraq over the past nine years — especially during the civil war, which carried religious connotations.
From this we can conclude that sectarian requirements were not a strategic criterion for building relationships between countries, especially neighboring ones. However, these requirements were often used politically to exacerbate relations between neighboring countries and the world, and in some cases led to bloody wars.
Today, both Iraq and the Arab world must access relations among the people of the region based on common interests. This is the only way to restore peace and deal with the hysteria of war and mutual threats.
The Shiites in Iraq are the majority, and this has allowed them to come to power. However, this sectarian classification is in no way enough to build ties with neighboring countries, especially since — in general —the Middle East is characterized by a Sunni majority. Moreover, implying that Iraq’s Shiites are affiliated with Iran will not win over Shiite hearts.
A reconsideration of relations in the Middle East won’t happen until the eradication of sectarian mines from the region. In any case, this won’t be an easy task because of interdependent political forces attempting to deepen divisions in order to prolong hostility among the people.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi is an Iraqi writer specializing in defense of democracy. He has extensive experience in documenting testimony and archiving documentaries associated with repressive practices. He has written many books, including Humanitarian Concerns, which was selected in 2000 by the European Union as the best book written by a refugee.