International prominent politicians have been in Baghdad in recent weeks.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin first arrived in the Iraqi capital on an unscheduled visit: “I am here to reaffirm the strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq,” he said. The Pentagon, said Austin, would make a commitment to maintaining the American troop presence, but said the intended partnership was about more than just military issues.
Iraq is keen to “strengthen and consolidate” ties with the US, Sudani said during the meeting. Iraq plays a crucial role for the US in containing Iranian influence in the region. Iran has repeatedly attempted to influence control of Iraq through the use of “proxies” and Shia political parties in Baghdad.
Before Sudani came to power, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr appeared ready to lead the government after the last elections. Al-Sadr had positioned himself against both Iran and the United States. But he failed to form a government amid opposition from rival parties, ultimately opening the door to Sudani, who has so far shown a willingness to expand Baghdad’s ties with Washington.
After his visit to Baghdad, Austin traveled to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, and met with the President of the Kurdistan Region and the Commander-in-Chief of the region’s armed forces, Nechirvan Barzani. In a joint press conference, Austin and Barzani stressed the importance of US support to Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, with Barzani saying “mutual interests and principles” bring the two closer together. Austin also highlighted the counter-terrorism cooperation between the US and the Kurdish peshmerga in fighting ISIS.
Shortly after the departure of her US counterpart, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock landed in Baghdad on a four-day visit to Iraq. Among other things, meetings with the Foreign Minister the Prime Minister were on the agenda. The top German politician described Iraq as “a key factor for the stability of the region”. During her visit, she wanted to make it clear that Germany and the European Union not only believe in a strong, peaceful future for the country, but are also committed to it.
EU-Iraq relations currently seem lighter than relations between Baghdad and Washington. This also has something to do with the Iraqi head of government – and his sponsors. When Sudani was elected prime minister in October, it not only marked the end of a year-long political blockade and a power struggle that had at times even raised fears of civil war. It was also the political victory of a politician who is considered a powerful puller of the pro-Iranian forces in Iraq: Nuri al-Maliki.
Several sources in Baghdad have said that the Americans are somewhat skeptical about the prime minister. And the regime in Tehran, which controls an influential network of politicians and militias in Iraq, is not quick to let Sudani out of its clutches. The US troop presence in Iraq, which is a thorn in Tehran’s eye, is also one of the sensitive issues.
Sudani is said – both by his advisors and by Western diplomats – to have a mind of his own. It is said in Baghdad that he wants to free himself politically. This is in line with reports in the Arab press that things are not always harmonious within the political alliance “coordination framework” to which Sudani and Maliki belong. There is even speculation about a possible government reshuffle. Sudani, who is actually trying to please everyone, has recently been unusually clear in public. “A minister’s relationship with the political forces ends after he has been nominated and gained the confidence of Parliament,” he said.
Sudani strives to appear as a doer. He has set ambitious goals and – like others before him – has declared war on corruption, which is deeply rooted in the system and in the political class. He also wants to boost the economy and secure the shaky power supply. At least the security situation in the country is currently so stable that the towering concrete barricades in front of the German embassy in Baghdad and the strict security measures seem a little outdated. But Sudani has to deliver more if he doesn’t want to end up as a pawn if new mass protests by the frustrated population shake the country. And if he wants to run as an independent candidate, should the promised new elections take place.
The Sudani government can use the commitment of Germany and the EU in all of these challenges, not least as economic partners. He had set an example when he chose Berlin as the destination of his first trip to a western country. A comprehensive joint work program was launched there. The visit of the German Foreign Minister is part of efforts to strengthen cooperation between Iraq and the EU. This also includes e.g. economic ties like orders to Siemens for power plant construction or planned visits to Germany by Iraqi ministers. German-Iraqi cooperation also touches on issues that are important to Berlin and Brussels, such as the return of Iraqis who are required to leave Europe or deportations. And of course energy partnerships so that countries like Germany can free itself from dependence on Russian gas.
Because even in the major conflict between the West and Moscow, Iraq and its head of government are struggling with their stance. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Baghdad about a month ago showed that Iraq should not be left to the wrong people. Sudani looked a little sparingly at the pictures that circulated from the visit, while Maliki was very satisfied.
The fact that Iraq is still a long way from achieving the kind of democracy and diversity that the German minister hoped for was only recently shown when a photo of UN Secretary General António Guterres caused displeasure. Among others, he posed with Qais al-Khazali, the founder of the Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which is listed as a terrorist group in America. Political representatives of this group are part of the government and the political alliance of the head of government. The (armed) groups loyal to Iran have set up a powerful and lucrative shadow empire. In Baghdad there is already talk of founding a company that will lay the foundation for an economic empire. It is ironic in Iraq that a law banning the import and sale of alcohol came from this orbit of all places. After all, it is not least liquor stores that pay the militias protection money.
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