By Arab News
By Yasir Yakis*
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi convened a summit for “cooperation and partnership” in Baghdad last month, with the participation of King Abdullah of Jordan, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the president of the UAE Sheikh Khalifa bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and French President Emmanuel Macron — the only non-Middle Eastern leader to take part.
Some Turkish media analysts suggested that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not attend in order to avoid criticism of Turkey’s policy in various Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq. Others said he did not want to sit at the same table as El-Sisi, who he continues to criticize while also courting Egypt to initiate a thaw in relations with Cairo. Or he may have had other priorities. Turkey was represented at the summit by Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu.
Kadhimi has led the Iraqi national intelligence service, so he knows the intricacies of the power balance in the Middle East. As a non-sectarian politician he has been able to keep his distance from Iran, and he tries to keep Iraq in a non-aligned position as part of a “zero enemies” policy. This approach may not eliminate all Iraq’s problems, but will certainly alleviate them.
The main purpose of the meeting was to seek ways to overcome Iraq’s political, economic and security challenges. In domestic politics, Kadhimi may be able to introduce a policy less influenced by sectarian connections and strike a balance among the three main political groups —Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. This is a policy that Iraq badly needs, because it has in the past suffered a lot from sectarian and ethnic divisions. The threat is real and if it is not properly addressed it may jeopardize the country’s territorial integrity. The Kurds have always been tempted to gain independence because their cause is steadily moving up the international agenda.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US, moved by anti-Saddam sentiment, demonized everything related to the dictator, including the Baathist structure that was mainly composed of Sunnis. It did not take into account thatreducing the Sunni weight in domestic politics would consequently lead to the ascendance of Shiite influence, which means Iranian influence. Kadhimi did his best to keep his distance from Iran, but it is still unclear whether the encroachment of Iranian influence can be contained. Iran’s penetration in Iraq is deep and may not be easy to uproot.
On the other hand, if the expectations of the Shiite population in the south of Iraq are not met, they also may be tempted to seek autonomy or independence in the future.
If Kadhimi returns as prime minister after elections on Oct. 10, a non-sectarian approach to Iraq’s problems may be further consolidated. His performance so far has proved that he is capable of doing it. Among the political figures who have tried it so far, Kadhimi has demonstrated the most dexterity.
Iraq is now fighting to consolidate its national unity by trying to keep the Kurds within the union, despite strong US support for the promotion of the Kurdish autonomy and perhaps independence some time in the future.
The second purpose of last month’s meeting was to promote dialogue among the countries of the region on a variety of issues, including conflicts in Syria and Yemen and the financial collapse of Lebanon. It also coincided with the US withdrawal from the region and the resumption of negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal.
Another important aspect of the summit was the efforts that Kadhimi has been making to defuse the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. He also hosted another undisclosed meeting in April between these two important neighbors. This is a task that few leaders in the Middle East have been able to achieve. In addition to several other vulnerabilities, Iraq is also negatively affected by the tension between these two neighbors.
Turkey is another target country for Iraq to cooperate with, but there are limits for such cooperation. Arab countries consider themselves a family and regard non-Arab countries as outsiders. Turkey is one of them. Furthermore, the Ottoman legacy is remembered in many Arab countries mostly for its negative aspects. Therefore, it is worth trying, but the success is not guaranteed. Turkey’s recent initiatives in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus, and its enduring military presence in the north of Iraq, are additional issues that hamper genuine cooperation.
Kadhimi’s efforts to solve the long catalogue of Iraq’s problems are praiseworthy, but they are not likely to be eliminated any time soon.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar