Iraq's push for national dialogue unlikely to succeed, experts say

Controlling armed groups that operate out of state control is still a significant challenge for Mustafa Al Kadhimi

Pope Francis and Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi react after the pontiff's arrival at Baghdad airport in March, 2021. Handout from the office of the Prime Minister of Iraq
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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi’s call for the country’s rival political groups to use dialogue to solve their differences is a way to regain public confidence but may fail to actually take place, experts said.

The plea, made last week, follows Pope Francis's historic visit to Iraq that was hailed as a success, but the government is hoping it will gather international support in dealing with Iranian-backed militias whose power and influence Mr Al Kadhimi has sought to curb since taking office in May 2020.

The government is also dealing with an array of issues such as corruption, mismanagement, providing adequate public services and violence linked to tensions between Iran and the US seen in the region since 2003.

“I think Kadhimi is trying to capitalise on the optimism from the Pope’s visit, he sees an opportunity to show more leadership and gather more support for his position but also to make clear which political sides are not interested in dialogue,” Sajad Jiyad, a fellow with the Century Foundation in Baghdad, said.

The dialogue will be based on preserving the security of Iraq, supporting the state and the rule of law, reducing tensions in the country and pave the way for a successful early election.

Controlling armed groups that operate out of state control is still a significant challenge for Mr Al Kadhimi.

However, previous rounds of talks have failed to secure a solution.

"National dialogues led by the government have a chequered history so there is little expectation that suddenly there will be more appetite for this given the current fractious and dysfunctional political situation," Mr Jiyad told The National.

Since the US-led invasion of 2003 millions have been spent by the government and international actors to try and have a national dialogue but the fundamental problem is its foundation, Renad Mansour, the Iraq initiative director at London's Chatham House, told The National.

“Dialogues have been tried for many years in Iraq and something fundamentally isn’t right with how it's done,” he said.

The main factors depend on what the dialogue is about and also who is in the room? Will it be Iraqis or will there be foreigners?

“Iraqis for many years now know what to say and what they are expected to say,” Mr Mansour said.

The country faces huge societal, economic, health, political and security problems so in a way the dialogue for Mr Al Kadhimi is a way to address them and regain confidence and legitimacy, he said.

“But can they be addressed by the type of dialogue that’s being proposed? The only way for it to succeed is if the government addresses the state and societal problems,” Mr Mansour said.

A national dialogue is vital for Iraq but it can only be symbolically launched between now and elections, Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute think tank, said.

"If successful in the next 5-10 years, a national dialogue could form the basis for an enduring compact between nationalist, democratic forces in Iraq that put Iraq first," Mr Knights told The National.

But the Iraqi expert said for “this reason, the idea of a national dialogue will be strongly opposed by Iran-backed groups and would-be dictators”.

Members of Parliament also expressed scepticism towards the initiative.

A dialogue may ease tensions between political leaders but it will not be enough, Sarkawt Shams, a Kurdish parliamentarian, said.

"It will be easy to get leaders of rival parties together but to start a dialogue is unlikely," he told The National.

Due to deep mistrust "rival parties will purposefully work on division and partisanship because they gain support that way".

Pope Francis ended his four-day tour last week, the first ever papal visit to Iraq, after visiting conflict-torn cities, meeting Muslim and Christian leaders and preaching peace and co-existence over war.