What was behind Abbas’ visit to Iraq?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ rare visit to Iraq raised questions about its purpose, as no agreements were announced.

al-monitor Iraq's President Barham Salih walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a welcoming ceremony at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, March 4, 2019.  Photo by The Presidency of the Republic of Iraq Office/Handout via REUTERS.
Adnan Abu Amer

Adnan Abu Amer


Topics covered

adel abdul mahdi, refugees, mahmoud abbas, palestinian-iraqi relations

Mar 11, 2019

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Iraq March 3. During meetings with Iraqi leaders, he sought to mobilize support for Palestinians and discuss the current political situation, the risks threatening the Palestinian cause, as well as bilateral relations and how to develop them on different levels.

Chief of the General Intelligence Service Majid Faraj accompanied Abbas, as well as his economic affairs’ adviser Mohammad Mostafa, diplomatic affairs’ adviser Majdi al-Khalidi and his son Yasser.

This is Abbas’ first visit to Iraq in seven years; he last went to Baghdad in March 2012 to attend the Arab Summit. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leader has made frequent visits to other Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Ahmad Akel, the Palestinian ambassador to Baghdad, told Al-Monitor, “Iraqi-Palestinian relations have undergone fluctuation and instability since 2003, with the US invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But our relations are stable now, and we want to develop our relations with Iraq.”

Akel added, “During the visit, the two sides agreed to hold an imminent meeting for the joint Iraqi-Palestinian ministerial committee formed in 2017 and to launch measures to form a council for businessmen of both countries. The visit aims at encouraging openness to all countries in the region rather than reshuffle our regional relations. Our rapprochement with Iraq and other countries like Syria should not anger any other country.”

The two-day visit included a meeting with Iraqi President Barham Salih on March 4, when they discussed bilateral relations and shared interests.

On March 3, Abbas met with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and called for boosting communication between the two governments. He also sat down with Iraqi parliament's first deputy speaker, Hassan al-Kaabi, and several Iraqi members of parliament to fill them in on the political developments in the Palestinian territories.

Abbas also held talks with members of the Council of Arab and International Relations (an independent, Arab international civil organization formed in Kuwait in 2009), that focused on Al-Aqsa violations committed by Israeli extremists and their attempts to destroy the identity of Jerusalem and change its cultural character.

Ahead of his trip to Baghdad, Abbas met with Iraqi parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi in Amman on March 2 to discuss bilateral relations.

Raed Nueirat, a professor of political science at An-Najah National University in Nablus and head of the Contemporary Center for Studies and Policy Analysis, told Al-Monitor, “Abbas’ visit carries several possible implications. It might be a matter of protocol without political ends as Iraq is no longer a pivotal country and is rather preoccupied with its internal issues.”

He continued, “The visit might have also been dictated to Abbas by Saudi Arabia to mend ties with Iraq, rather than being a [purely] Palestinian-Iraqi bilateral visit. The Palestinian prime minister did not take part, which makes this theory plausible. Or Abbas might be pre-empting Hamas’ reconciliation with Syria, with his imminent visit to Syria.”

Former chief of Israeli military intelligence, Yoni Ben-Menachem, said Feb. 28 that Abbas’ upcoming visit to Damascus — for which a date has yet to be announced — pre-empts Iran’s mediation in the Syria-Hamas reconciliation.

Hassan Asfour, the former Palestinian minister of civil organizations' affairs, said March 3 that since Abbas’ delegation only included the chief of intelligence, his economic adviser and his son Yasser, without any politicians, the visit might have had security and economic purposes.

However, al-Modon newspaper reported on March 4 that Abbas met with US officials during his visit to Baghdad regarding a new Palestinian government — although the meeting was not confirmed. It also involved talks about buying Iraqi oil, refining it in Jordan and storing it in Jericho to make up for Israel’s control of oil fields in the West Bank, in addition to discussions about inviting Syria to participate in the upcoming Arab Summit in Tunisia at the end of March.

A Palestinian official close to Abbas told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Abbas’ visit aims at expanding the Arab support to face US and Israeli pressure. In the past weeks, the US has tried to mobilize Arab pressure on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to accept the deal of the century. Abbas is trying to find parties in the region that have decisive stances against US efforts in the region. Iraq and Syria top that list because they are close to Iran. Saudi Arabia and Egypt do not like this, but we have balanced relations with them.”

During his visit, Abbas congratulated Iraqis on their victory against the Islamic State in 2017 and said he was ready to participate in rebuilding Iraq. But as the PA faces a financial crisis, it seems Abbas’ talk is just pleasantry, knowing that Iraq supported the PA with $28 million in January 2015.

Abbas’ visit did not include a meeting with Palestinian refugees in Iraq, despite the organized killing campaigns against them and their displacement by armed Shiite militias in the past. In 2003, there were 43,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq, but today there are only 4,000.

On March 4, Iraqi Palestinian activists called on Abbas to include the issue of Palestinian detainees in Iraqi prisons since 2003 in his talks with Iraqi officials.

Mohammed Meshinish, a researcher on the affairs of Palestinian refugees in Iraq, told Al-Monitor, “Abbas’ visits to Iraq in 2012 and 2019 did not address Palestinian refugees in Iraq. After each visit, their situation remains the same, and Abbas’ behavior is killing their hopes and making way for more violations against them from Iraqi parties, without any comment from the PA.”

Despite Abbas’ packed agenda during his visit to Iraq, no bilateral agreements were signed, unlike other diplomatic visits. The Palestinian prime minister was absent, which makes the visit seem shady in terms of results, timing and causes, despite its importance.

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