A Struggle of Wills over Iraq’s Identity

The last few days witnessed serious efforts by some Arab countries to influence developments in Iran-friendly Iraq. On March 24, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani visited Baghdad for talks on economic cooperation. As Qatar’s relations with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council improve, Doha appears to want to play a reconciliatory role in the Gulf where Iraq figures prominently in the competition between Iran and the Gulf Arab states. On March 25, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz held a virtual meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and invited him for direct talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which he accepted.

Moreover, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi are set to visit the Iraqi capital soon for a follow-up conference with Kadhimi, after the three leaders met in August 2020 and signed agreements on strategic and economic cooperation. It also appears that the occasion may witness the official launch of the “New Sham Project,” (in reference to the Levant) a land route connecting Cairo and Baghdad through Amman. The impetus for this three-country project is actually Iraqi since Kadhimi himself proposed it in the tripartite summit last August.

There appears to be a new Arab push toward Iraq that today is suffering from the grip of Iran-friendly militias. It is also quite possible that the new initiatives are encouraged by the United States, which is interested in lessening Iran’s influence in Iraq where it maintains military bases and stations troops. But whatever the reason, the Arab states’ steps toward embracing Iraq and inviting it back to the Arab fold—after estrangement following the American invasion in 2003—are welcome. Indeed, Iraq’s identity as an Arab country has become endangered; this is what prompted the country’s youth, especially Shia Iraqis, to demand severing Baghdad’s close relations with Tehran in order to return to the national unity that has been torn by sectarian divisions.

Despite its serious economic and political problems, Iraq is a rich country that can be a pillar of Arab development and progress. A putative entente, even a loose one, would represent a serious project for coordinating development plans between Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan (perhaps joined by Syria later, if that country returns to normalcy). Such an entente would bring together more than 160 million people in a common market, most of them youth looking for employment opportunities that could be met by combining economic resources. Iraq is rich in hydrocarbons, natural gas, phosphates, and sulfur and could provide a very attractive venue for these youth, especially Egyptians who have a long history of working there.

Finally, there can be no denying that the efforts of some Arab countries from the Gulf and elsewhere to open up to Iraq after years of disengagement should be welcome by Iraqi officials. This not only helps Iraq’s development plans and affirms its Arab identity, but it also could limit the influence that Iran has exercised in the country through its armed militias. Such a development is also in the interest of the United States, which is looking to lessen its exposure in Iraq, and it would deprive Tehran of the ability to justify interference in Iraqi affairs as a response to the American presence in that country.

Abdulwahab Al-Qassab is a Visiting Scholar at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Qassab and read his previous publications click here