As world leaders continue talks at the UN General Assembly in New York, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani is aiming to dispel fears over growing Iranian influence in his country and outline his nation’s pressing needs.
Mr Al Sudani, who next month completes his first year in office, is set to address the 78th session of the annual UNGA later on Friday. The summit began on Tuesday.
“He will try as much as he can to dispel the fears of the international community that a government formed by armed factions will not be hostile,” political analyst Ihsan Al Shammari, who leads the Iraqi Political Thinking Centre think tank in Baghdad, told The National.
“He will present and work on drawing an image that these factions have been able to adhere to the state’s agenda and are working to change the reality of Iraq at the level of services and the level of the state institutions.”
Mr Al Sudani was the nominee for prime minister from the Iran-aligned Co-ordination Framework – the largest political group in the Iraqi parliament with 138 out of 329 seats.
The group comprises powerful Iran-backed Shiite militias and political parties, and some of its leaders are US-blacklisted for belonging to designated terrorist groups.
Since he took office, Washington has grown increasingly worried about the influence of the Shiite militias in Iraq.
Tehran's growing reach
Since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq has been caught in the middle of US-Iran rivalry and regional tensions, particularly due to its diplomatic and geographic closeness to Iran.
During a series of meetings with senior officials and interviews in New York, Mr Al Sudani sought to alleviate worries about Iran’s role in Iraq.
“We always face the question about Iraq’s relationship with both Iran and the US as if we are the only country that has relations with both countries,” Mr Al Sudani told the Middle East Global Summit, held by the Al Monitor and Semafor media organisations, on Thursday.
He defended Iran-Iraq relations, saying the strong historical, cultural, religious, and political ties between the two countries cannot be ignored.
“Iran is a neighbouring country with whom we have more than 2,200 kilometres of shared borders and we have many things in common with them,” he said.
“They have supported our political process since 2003 and supported us in fighting terrorism, and at the same time the US is a strategic partner to Iraq.”
Critics of the Iraqi government say politicians openly loyal to Iran – in some cases from parties formed in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s – have taken senior positions in a number of government ministries.
They point to examples over the years where Iraq has helped Iran at the behest of these political leaders, helping Tehran transfer weapons to Syria and creating Iran-trained and armed militias within Iraq.
“I want to underline here that we do not follow instructions from others. What we need and serves our national interest, we do. We consider this approach as the perfect path for our foreign policy,” said Mr Al Sudani.
But the international community is waiting for deeds from Baghdad, rather than statements, Mr Al Shammari said.
“What the international community is willing to see is a stable country that enjoys full sovereignty and not a subordinate state,” he said.
Over the past year, Mr Al Sudani’s government has faced a series of formidable challenges in regard to the economy, climate change and corruption.
It has been struggling to control the official exchange rate due to failed measures to introduce reforms to the foreign currency auction run by the Iraqi central bank.
Washington has been pressing Iraq since last year to stop the flow of dollars through the foreign currency auction to countries under US sanctions, including Iran and Syria, as well as to entities under sanctions in Lebanon.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has applied strict criteria to requests for international transactions from Iraq, rejecting many and delaying others.
It has also blacklisted several Iraqi banks suspected of money laundering and of carrying out suspicious transactions. The latest was in July, when it barred 14 private Iraqi banks from conducting dollar transactions.
Iraq is among the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 157 out of 180 in non-governmental organisation Transparency International's 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index.
In an interview with CNN, Mr Al Sudani described corruption as a “real challenge” to his government, appealing to the international community to help Iraq in repatriating corrupt officials with dual nationalities and the funds they smuggled abroad.
He also called for more international support to Iraq to fight climate change.
“We need the international support in fighting climate change,” Mr Al Sudani said.
“We have not found any trace to any work for the relevant international institutions in the field of climate change.”
Iraq is ranked by the UN fifth on a list of countries most vulnerable to climate change, and is experiencing its worst drought in decades, with temperatures exceeding 50°C last summer.