Iraq's friends are rallying to help. But can they?

Jordan has just been host to an impressive multilateral summit that brought together, among others, Iran and Saudi Arabia to discuss the issue

French President Emmanuel Macron inspects an honour guard during a reception ceremony at the summit. AFP
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French President Emmanuel Macron has been in the Middle East a fair amount recently. On Sunday, images were beamed across the world as he supported his country in the final of Qatar’s World Cup. Two days later, he was in Jordan, along with key heads of state and senior officials from across the region and beyond.

But they are gathered to discuss a far more sober topic than football: the fragile state of Iraq’s security and how to address it.

It was attended by several countries including the UAE, France, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. Crucially, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran were also there.

In opening comments, Mr Macron decried the fact Iraq is being used as a battleground by competing interests. He is right to do so. There are few countries more ravaged by foreign interference than Iraq. “Iraq probably is, given the past decades, one of the main victims of regional destabilisation,” Mr Macron said. “We need to be able to ... overcome the divisions of the moment.”

Iraqis have endured decades of trauma of many kinds. After almost two decades since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the country’s former president, it is fair to say that, while the situation is different, there is little to point to real progress or an improvement in people’s lives. The vast proliferation of foreign-backed militias, many lethal protest movements, corruption scandals, the emergence of terrorist groups – none more threatening than ISIS – and a deteriorating environment are all evidence of this fact.

And while the main focus of the summit is improving the life of Iraqis who face the brunt of these challenges, long-standing chaos in Baghdad is spilling over into other countries. There are many examples. With a wide network of Iran-backed militias, Iraqi territory is now a convenient staging ground for Tehran to pursue confrontational tactics at the expense of regional rivals. Environmental collapse in Iraq aggravates dust storms that spill over into its neighbours.

By helping to convene the event, France is showing important initiative that other powers can learn from and perhaps replicate. After all, it is not just Iraq’s neighbours that feel the severe effects of instability.

Europe still remains without a continent-wide and effective strategy to deal with a migrant crisis that it has been faced with for years. Many of the people making the dangerous, often ruinously expensive and often illegal trip to Europe hail from Iraq, particularly its Kurdistan region, where slightly higher economic prosperity but a lack of hope and opportunity morph into a perfect storm to drive migrants to Europe.

While the problems are complex, the gains of finding the right answers would be significant. The situation globally could hardly be more challenging. The war in Ukraine is devastating food supplies, particularly in the Middle East. Iran is distracted by severe domestic protests. These factors and many more are aggravating Europe’s migration crisis.

This is an optimistic reading, but multilateral forums, in which so many, often opposing, sides are able to get together, are a good time to try to make the case for hopeful tactics. It is only a good thing, for example, that since last year Iraq has hosted five meetings between Saudi and Iranian officials, even though a breakthrough in relations has not yet materialised. Baghdad should be praised for this initiative.

The event might have been initiated by France’s president, but the main drive is for the powers of the Middle East to find regional solutions for regional problems. It is impossible to know when they will happen, but when they do, it will be the result of a long series of patient, constructive meetings and deliberations such as these.

Published: December 22, 2022, 3:00 AM