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Salih: Iraq can be a 'bridge to the economies of the region'

Iraqi president charts new direction for Iraqi foreign policy based on "interrelated interests" at Sulaimani Forum; Iraq-Jordan trade deal should help address Jordan’s unemployment crisis; Rouhani arrives in Iraq to boost trade; US shifted arms from Iraq to Syria in second half of 2018.

Iraq is ready to help steer the region away from confrontation and toward integration, Iraqi President Barham Salih told the sixth annual Sulaimani Forum on March 6. Everyone can share “a degree of success” in Iraq’s reconstruction, he said, adding that Iraq can “be a bridge to the economies of the region by linking the infrastructure between Iraq and the Gulf and Turkey between Iran and the Arab region and the Mediterranean.”

Expanding on these themes in an interview with Mina Al-Oraibi of The National, Salih added, “It is incumbent on us as this new team leading Iraq to move and push forward the Iraqi agenda that we consider to be vital for a new regional order based on economic integration and collaboration among the nations of the region, but also internationally in the fight against extremism.”

The Iraqi president envisions “a network of ‘interrelated interests’ such as regional railways, pipelines and free trade zones across Iraq’s borders with all of its neighbors,” Ali Mamouri reports.

“These calls for more openness toward Arab states weren't limited to the Kurdish and Arab Sunni figures alone,” Mamouri writes, “but even Iraqi Shiite figures who are known as close allies of Iran demanded rapprochement with Arabs and called for Baghdad to play an intermediary role between Iraq’s neighboring countries.” For example, Ammar Hakim, head of the Hikma movement, said, “Iraq must be the peace gate of the region.” 

“Arab figures seemed to be very realistic in addressing the regional conflict between Iran and Arab countries,” adds Mamouri. “They all called for reaching out to Iran via Iraq instead of escalating the confrontation.”

The first step in Iraq’s new regional policy is the Iraq-Jordan trade agreement signed Feb. 2. Jordan Minister of Industry, Trade and Supply Tareq Hammouri, who spoke at the forum, praised the agreement as a breakthrough and model for further integration among Arab states.

Last month we wrote that the agreement signaled “a new direction in Iraqi foreign policy that seeks comity and economic engagement with all its neighbors, including Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, while keeping close ties with the United States. Iraq’s leadership of this trend toward a more open and economically focused foreign policy, including and especially in the Levant, could be a catalyst for a new direction in regional politics.” 

The trade agreement should help Jordan address its unemployment crisis. Osama Al Sharif reports that the official unemployment rate in Jordan is 18.7%, which is troubling enough, but that the rate among college and university graduates is 24.5%, and that it is 78.2% for women with a university degree.

The lack of jobs has spurred a dramatic march to the capital by unemployed youth from Aqaba, which has support among many Jordanians. “So far the marches have been peaceful,” writes Sharif, “but as they continue to spread, they will put pressure on both the Royal Court and the government to come up with solutions. While the Cabinet was correct in asserting that immediate solutions cannot be found, local observers fear that the frustration among the unemployed could turn into anger, providing fresh ammunition to anti-government protests that had subsided in the past few weeks.”

Iraq’s focus on defusing regional tensions and expanding trade will be on display when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrives in Iraq for a formal state visit March 11.

Iraq’s ties to Iran continue to be an irritant in US-Iraq relations. At the forum, Salih emphasized the importance of Iraq’s alliance with the United States, including the need for continued collaboration against extremism in the region and the Islamic State. In response to a question about US troops also being in Iraq to watch Iran, the Iraqi president said Baghdad doesn’t "want to be part of these conflicts. Iraq is still not a very stable country, and putting an extra political burden on it is unacceptable."

There is also “US pressure on Iraq over its imports of Iranian natural gas and electricity, which have left Baghdad stuck between a rock and a hard place,” writes Mohammad Ali Shabani. “In December, the Trump administration issued a second waiver that allowed Iraq to continue paying for such imports for another 90 days. The Iraqis have responded by saying that they need around two years to adapt, and last month reportedly signed a one-year contract to renew electricity imports from Iran. The government in Baghdad cannot afford renewed civil unrest over electricity shortages, particularly as summer approaches.”

Iran has sensed, and seized, an opportunity in the crisis caused by US sanctions on Iran to boost economic ties with Iraq. “Iran has not sat idly by amid the pressure,” Shabani continues. “Rouhani’s visit will focus on trade and investment. At present, bilateral exchanges stand at $12 billion per year, and the two sides seek to increase it to $20 billion. Indeed, while US sanctions have sought to restrict Iran’s regional linkages, data suggest that the opposite has occurred. Isolated from international markets, Iran has rather focused its energy on its neighbors. Moreover, as sanctions have weakened the rial, Iranian goods and services have become more attractive. As a result, in October, Iraq even overtook China as Iran’s prime non-oil export market.”

With regard to the US military presence in Iraq, “the Pentagon rerouted millions of dollars’ worth of weapons and vehicles from Iraq to Syria in the second half of 2018,” Jack Detsch reports, “as US-backed forces cornered the last remnants of the Islamic State (IS)” in Syria.

Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Fareed Yasseen said, “Iraq will likely see an internationalization of the Western military presence that’s there in support of Iraqi military capabilities.”

“That includes a new NATO training operation led by Canadian Gen. Dany Fortin,” writes Detsch. “The US-led coalition fighting in Iraq told the Pentagon’s inspector general last month that training of Iraqi forces ‘is of a basic nature’ and does not fit US definitions of counterinsurgency instruction.”

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