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Iraq’s New International Role – OpEd

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By Yusuf Fernandez

In March 2012, Iraq hosted an Arab League summit for the first time in two decades. On May 23, it will similarly host the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group. According to commentators, both events show Iraq’s bid to reemerge as a regional power now that Saddam Hussein has gone and the American occupation has ended.

Although Baghdad still maintains good relations with Washington, there is no doubt that Iraq is asserting its independence and US influence in Iraq is waning. The threat by the Bush administration to withdraw all economic and military support from Iraq, if the country did not accept the agreement on the status of US forces in the country, did not lead the Iraqi government -who opposed any form of legitimation of the US military presence and especially the recognition of a right to legal extraterritoriality for American troops in the country- to give in to this blackmail.

Now, with US troops gone, the Obama Administration has preferred not to explore the possibility of future security agreements with the Iraqi government, which would lead to the presence of US military trainers and advisers in the country. Kenneth M. Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, claimed in an article: “We have surrendered so much of our influence”.

At the same time, contrary to what some media had hypothesized, security in the country is clearly improving. Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups are still a threat and continue to carry out coordinated attacks killing dozens of people in the country. However, their actions are diminishing in frequency and intensity. The arrest of numerous terrorists in recent months and the lack of popular support for their cause have contributed to this result.

On the other hand, Iraq’s political system makes the country immune to the challenges of the Arab Spring. Although the Iraqi government is not popular among some groups of the population, no one doubts of its political legitimacy after gaining the confidence of the Parliament, which has been elected through fair and clean elections.

The improvement of security has been accompanied by a rapid economic development. Iraq’s gross domestic product is expected to grow by an average rate of at least 9.4% annually between 2012 and 2016 as the oil-producing country largely benefits from higher oil prices, a senior central bank official said in February. In 2011, the GDP grew around 5-6%.

“We expect Iraq’s GDP in 2015 to jump to 360 billion dollars from 170 billion currently,” deputy central bank governor Mudher Kasim told Reuters. “The reason (for the increase) will come from oil… If the oil sector is developed it will drive the country’s development engine.”

Camps in the South have been refurbished and oil is being exported at record levels. Iraq expects to be producing between 5 million and 6 million barrels a day of oil by 2015, around double its current level, said the country’s Deputy Prime Minister for Energy, Hussein al-Shahristani. On March 14, the Oil Ministry predicted that Iraq’s crude oil reserves, currently pegged at 143.1 billion barrels, will double in the next few years because of wider exploration and increased development by international companies operating Iraq´s major fields.

The planned oil production increase is a result of an effort to renovate many large but depleted oil fields that were starved of investment for more than two decades of sanctions and war. Major international oil companies are now taking part in these projects and this led to an increase in the oil production of around 500,000 barrels a day in 2011, Shahristani said.

Iraq’s religious influence over the region’s Shiite communities is also increasing. Many Shiites, including from the Persian Gulf countries, regularly visit the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala in Ashura and the Arba in festivities and maintain strong links with the Iraqi religious establishment.

The Baghdad summit

In March, dignitaries from 20 nations across the region poured into a Baghdad to discuss the many important issues confronting the Arab world, including the crisis in Syria, the political transitions in Egypt and Libya and the Israeli colonization in Palestine.

“Iraq today embraces its Arab brothers,” said Ali al-Musawi, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. “We know very well that holding the summit in Baghdad will restore our economic and political significance as a major player and a pivotal state in the region.” He added that Iraq has already settled a 500 million dollars airline lawsuit with Kuwait, agreed to a prisoner exchange with Saudi Arabia, and restored full diplomatic relations with Libya.

The summit was considered a sign of Iraq’s reacceptance in the Arab world after more than two decades of isolation. Iraq spent more than 500 million dollars to clean up and renovate Baghdad and restore the Republican Palace, built by Saddam Hussein and then occupied by the US Embassy for several years, where the summit took place.

Among the leaders of the Persian Gulf Arab states only the Kuwaiti emir attended the summit. The Kuwaiti emir’s presence reflected the improvement of the long tense ties between both countries since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion and seven-month occupation of Kuwait.

“It is no surprise that the [Persian] Gulf States did not want to give Iraq the prestige that they would by sending heads of state to the summit,” said Crispin B. Hawes, Middle East director of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based risk consultant agency, to Associated Press. “They want Iraq to continue to be a second-rate citizen in the region; they want to keep Iraq inside the box. They do not want it to be another major regional player.”

Some [Persian] Gulf Arab states and Iraq have publicly clashed because of Iraq’s support for the revolution of Bahrain and close relations with Iran. In particular, Saudi Arabia has not yet accepted the new realities in Iraq. During the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), Saudis supported Saddam Hussein against Shiite Iran although they changed their policy when Saddam’s army invaded Iraq in 1990. Saudi Arabia took part in the [Persian] Gulf War against Iraq and the relations between both countries were openly hostile until the last years of Saddam´s rule in which they started to improve.

Currently, Saudi rulers are wary of a democratic culture in Iraq and also laments the overarching reality of Shiite parties controlling a country as rich in resources as Iraq. They are also concerned that Iraq has the potential to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s top exporter of oil. In this way, according to some experts, Saudi Arabia will thus do what it can to ensure instability prevails in Iraq in order to prevent Shiite groups and parties from becoming stronger than they are already.

Saudi rulers have been funding the Iraqi opposition, the Iraqiyya coalition, led by former Baathist Iyad Allawi and have publicly received the Iraqi Vice President Hashemi, who is wanted by the Iraqi authorities under the charge of having links with terrorism. Recently, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz told US President Barack Obama that he did not trust Maliki at all because he was “an Iranian agent”.

For its part, Iraqi media has regularly accused some of the country’s neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, of supporting Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups operating in the country. Around 3,000 Saudis are currently in Iraqi prisons because of terrorism charges.

Iraq and other non- Persian Gulf Arab states such as Algeria, also oppose Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s bid to arm Syrian rebels fighting Damascus, claiming that toppling Assad “could spark sectarian violence”. Iraq has also rejected any form of interference in Syria or the adoption of sanctions against this country. “We cannot overthrow by force the government of Bashar al-Assad, and military aid brought by Saudi and Qatar is a flagrant interference in the internal affairs of Syria and all Arab countries”, Maliki said.

Observers in Baghdad claim that the fall of Bashar al Assad’s regime could prove to be disastrous for the Iraqi Shiite-led government, especially if it gives access to power to Sunni radical groups or the new Syrian government allies itself with Saudi Arabia or Persian Gulf countries because it could empower and radicalize rival Sunni parties in Iraq.

Iraq’s new role is not limited to the Arab world as it shows its hosting of the second round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 group over the Iranian nuclear program, which will take place on 27 May in Baghdad instead of Istanbul. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters the proposal for talks in Baghdad came from an Iranian delegation visiting Iraq recently and that the Iraqi government had supported the proposal. The United States and other Western governments also accepted it.

Therefore, Iraq’s new political independence and economic development, along with its close relationship with Iran and the Western countries and its reentry into the Arab world, will lead the country to play an increasingly important role in international and regional scenarios after decades of isolation and war.

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