Analysis: Summits will not end Iraq’s woes

Salah Nasrawi , Wednesday 18 Aug 2021

Solutions to the crisis in Iraq mostly rest in home and not in international summit meetings

Summits will not end Iraq’s woes

Iraq’s problems reflect broader issues within the country’s dysfunctional governance, but its Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, believes that with some tactical twists he can use foreign diplomacy to overcome Iraq’s formidable troubles.

In order to prove his point, Al-Kadhimi plans to bring together the leaders of several of Iraq’s neighbouring countries at a summit meeting he will host later this month in Baghdad in order to address the problems facing the wider region.

Neither Al-Kadhimi nor his office have disclosed details about the summit, dubbed by local media the Iraq’s Neighbouring Countries Conference and intended to tackle regional cooperation and stability.

Invitations have already been delivered to the leaders of Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. While leaders of Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also on the list of invitees, Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said no invitation was sent to Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad. 

Al-Kadhimi’s office said French President Emmanuel Macron had also been invited and had confirmed plans to attend during a phone conversation with the Iraqi premier.

But the list of participants does not seem to be final, and much of the success of the conference will depend on which countries appear to be receptive and their level of participation.

A few details about the summit were given by Iraq’s Minister of Culture Hassan Nadhim, who said the gathering was part of the Al-Kadhimi government’s “diplomatic strategy to restore Iraq’s stability.”

“When the region is stable and tensions ease, this will reflect positively on Iraq’s stability,” Nadhim, who doubles as the government’s spokesman, told a local television channel on Friday.

If convened, the event will be the second in two months after the June conference that brought the leaders of Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan together and rebranded Baghdad as a summit destination.

It also comes nearly three months after a historic visit by Pope Francis to Iraq, when he became the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to visit the battered country.

Al-Kadhimi took credit for bringing these and other foreign leaders to Baghdad and for visits he has made to some key world capitals, trumpeted by friendly media as bringing Iraq back on the path of important events.

But until Baghdad turns out in full strength to catch a glimpse of the visiting kings, emirs, and presidents, some of them long-time adversaries, many Iraqis will remain sceptical about Al-Kadhimi’s strategy to seek solutions for their country’s colossal challenges abroad.

Iraq faces multiple political, economic, and security crises and governance challenges, and confronting them is crucial to ending the country’s stalemate.

Since he took office in May 2020, Al-Kadhimi has been engaged in diplomatic forays to try to boost his image in the eyes of foreign leaders, taking advantage of the world’s willingness to help stabilise Iraq.

On the surface, his proactive foreign policy seems to be directed at creating a new landscape for diplomacy with neighbouring and other countries and enhancing regional cooperation.

But it has also been evident that Al-Kadhimi is facing a suite of challenges on the domestic stage, from a dysfunctional government to rampant corruption, incompetent bureaucracy, and a crumbling healthcare system overwhelmed by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

His greatest challenge, however, is to restore state sovereignty through measures that include restructuring Iraq’s security forces and reining in rogue militias in order to prevent the country from becoming a battleground for clashes between the US and Iran. 

A key task for Al-Kadhimi is to hold early elections, one of the main demands of the anti-establishment protests that have taken place in Iraq. The vote is scheduled for 10 October but is threatened by a boycott and disruption. 

Iraq is also plagued by foreign interference, such as Iran’s increasing bid for influence, Turkey’s military incursions, and other forms of outside intervention. 

External influence continues to pose deep challenges for the intervention-prone country, and Al-Kadhimi may try to make the summit meeting a way of asking for help to stem foreign interference.

Indeed, Al-Kadhimi has been getting positive messages from many world and regional powers for what pundits in the western media and think-tanks call his “determination” to alter Iraq’s political and economic fortunes.

This increasingly vocal band of promoters say that Al-Kadhimi may have developed some assets to work with in this regard, mostly in the form of the “relationships he has fostered with foreign leaders” since he came to power in 2020 and his “enhancing frayed Iraqi relationships” with the country’s neighbours.

Taking such assessments at face value, these advocates seem to be building on growing efforts by leading Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to enhance their cooperation with Iraq and bids by some European nations, especially France, to woo Baghdad.

Yet, while these efforts may aim at helping Iraq to distance itself from neighbouring Iran in order to support its stability, still the declared objective of the upcoming Baghdad summit, there is little chance that Al-Kadhimi will be able to unplug his country from Iran.

Since he came to power, Al-Kadhimi has showed ineptitude in carrying out the reform programme he had promised and facing up to powerful ruling oligarchs and Iran-backed militias that have been eroding the Iraqi state’s power and resisting change.

Combating corruption and government inefficiency and taking on the influence of entrenched ruling factions and pro-Iran militias are widely seen as being Iraq’s last chance to change the status quo and save it from crumbling.

One of the most pressing questions is what Al-Kadhimi can do to end Iraq’s perpetual crisis in the few weeks left for his government before Iraqis go to the polls to elect a new government. 

Al-Kadhimi, who is not affiliated to any group, will not run in the elections, and he is counting on the failure of the political blocs to form a government following an inconclusive outcome to keep him in office.

In addition to scepticism about the ability of Al-Kadhimi to strengthen his position in a second term in office, there are also doubts about whether the forthcoming summit will achieve much, given the poor state of relations between the attendees.

Almost all the leaders who have been invited to the summit are entangled in geopolitical disputes, soaring regional conflicts, historical suspicions, or personal grudges, and their encounters at the summit meeting are not expected to turn into a rapprochement.

Not every participant is happy about the summit even going ahead, particularly because it will not be an appropriate venue to discuss the full range of pressing issues that have marred their countries’ relationships.  

Whatever the summit’s guest list or goals may be, the event is likely to be framed in large part as a photo opportunity to buy Al-Kadhimi time for a second term, and its possible outcome will remain clouded in doubt, caution, and speculation.

With competing agendas and bilateral relations plunging to some of the lowest recorded, it is hard to imagine that the leaders at the summit will achieve any breakthrough on the substantial issues of stability in Iraq. 

Finding solutions to Iraq’s multiple problems should start with Iraq’s leadership. Since the current political class came to power after the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has consistently experienced serious political, security, and development challenges.

While instability in Iraq’s neighbourhood contributes to the country’s conflicts, the tragic events impacting the country bear witness to a deep-seated leadership crisis.

Over the last two decades, several attempts have been made by world and regional powers to help Iraq solve its challenges, but its structural leadership deficiencies have remained flagrant.

This time round, the outcome will not be different, and the only guarantee is that Iraqi civilians will continue to suffer until a new generation of Iraqi leaders is on the frontline demonstrating commitment, vision, and strategy as they build efficiency, trust, and ethical behaviour in government.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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