Baghdad will take no sides

Al Monitor
Baghdad will take no sides

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi visited Egypt March 23, the premier's first trip abroad since assuming his post last October. Following the two-day trip, Iraq's Foreign Ministry described the visit as not only a success for Iraq's policy of distancing itself from all political axes, but also an opportunity to expand work with different economic circles in the region. Al Monitor reports in its article Iraq tells Mideast leaders Baghdad will take no sides that the statement also emphasised encouragement of all countries to invest in Iraq despite their political disputes in the region.

During a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Abdul Mahdi discussed several economic projects, including a potential electricity deal. Later on, Jordan's King Abdullah joined the tripartite summit to discuss the extension of an Iraqi pipeline to Egypt. Iraq and Jordan had previously agreed to build a pipeline to transfer Basra’s oil in southern Iraq to the port of Aqaba in western Jordan. The 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) pipeline will transfer Iraqi crude from Basra to export ports in Aqaba, at a cost of about $18 billion and a capacity of one million barrels per day.

The agreement on the pipeline extension has yet to be finalized, but according to their final statement, the three leaders have agreed on working on common infrastructure and expanding their economic ties and will establish a committee to follow up on the agreements.

In his opening speech, Abdul Mahdi said, “This summit marks a major turning point in the future of common relations and the interests of our peoples." He added, “Our agreements will serve the interests of many other countries as well.” It could have been a reference to the United States' forthcoming Mideast peace plan — commonly referred to as the “deal of the century” — that will ostensibly work to resolve Arab-Israeli disputes by promoting major economic deals that serve the interests of both sides. This is especially relevant due to Israel's location in the middle of the pipeline, which could eventually transfer Iraqi oil to Israel as well.

During the Sulaimaniyah Forum on March 6-7, Iraqi President Barham Salih highlighted the economic role of Iraq in bringing peace to the region, saying that Iraq is moving toward being a “bridge between the region’s economies by linking infrastructure between the Gulf, Turkey and Iran on one side and between the Arab region and the Mediterranean region on the other."

Similarly, in his speech to the Egyptian Parliament, Abdul Mahdi said, “Our country cooperates with everyone and rejects the axes and war that destroyed our countries and peoples.”

Iraq hosted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in mid-March, a visit that resulted in the signing of several economic agreements, the waiving of visa fees between the two countries and a significant expansion of bilateral ties. Iraq was also the destination of Jordan’s King Abdullah last month, after Salih paid a visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia to expand Baghdad's relations with the Arab world.

Yet Iraq's efforts to expand ties with Egypt goes far beyond the economic angle. Military and security cooperation between the two countries was also among the meeting's main goals.

During his meeting with Sisi, Abdul Mahdi highlighted “the importance of drying up the sources of terrorism,” adding, “Cooperation between Egypt and Iraq will be essential for this matter." Egypt, like Iraq, has had success in fighting terrorism. The Islamic State was active in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula for years before Egypt succeeded in eliminating the group and restoring security to the area.

The new Iraqi policy of being a bridge in the region rather than getting involved in regional conflicts requires Iraq to build an independent position in the region and for rival powers to stop interfering in Iraq's internal affairs. This message was also made clear to the Iranian president during his recent visit to Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani told Rouhani, “Iraq's sovereignty must be respected." In his speech welcoming Rouhani, Salih said, “We hope that Iraq can become a bridge between the region’s nations based on mutual respect and common interests." He added, “Iraq is lucky to be a neighbor with Iran, as well as a neighbor with Turkey and connected to the Arab world at the same time." Iraq's new policy was also likely informed by US President Donald Trump's recent comment that he wants US troops in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran, further prompting Iraq to distance itself from all conflicts and instead build independent relationships with all parties. If Iraq succeeds in building this dream bridge across the Mideast, it stands to play a major peacemaking role in the region.