Iraq president urges US and Iran to 'cool it down' as he vows his country will not become a battlefield

Barham Salih tells London audience that a storm is sweeping the Middle East

President of Iraq Barham Salih, speaks at The Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Wednesday, June 26, 2019. President Salih outlines Iraq's role in the region amidst tensions in the Middle East. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Barham Salih, the Iraq President, has called on all sides to “cool it down” as tension between the US and Iran rise, increasing fears that his country will be sucked into more conflict.

Speaking during an official visit to the UK to an audience at the Chatham House think tank, Mr Salih said Iraq would not allow factions within his country to fight for any external agenda.

“There is a storm sweeping across the Middle East. We are right in the middle of it,” he said.

“We certainly don’t want to be embroiled in another war, another conflict on our territory. We haven’t finished the last war. The war against terror has yet to be accomplished.”

Reflecting on crushing the ISIS footprint across Iraq and Syria, Mr Salih stressed the importance of the victory, warning those gains should not be lost.

“The war against ISIS, the territorial defeat of ISIS is not to be underestimated, it is significant,” he said.

Mr Salih said that Iraq’s intelligence apparatus was still studying the recent attacks against US-linked targets in Baghdad and Basra, which were widely reported as a message from Tehran to Washington.

Noting there had been a change in domestic confidence in Iraq’s sovereignty and determination to govern its own affairs, Mr Salih said the state was asserting its monopoly over the use of force.

“The surge of Iraq nationalism is real. We don’t want to fight another war for others,” he said. “A stable Iraq will be good for everybody. Any actors against this will be treated as outlaws.”

Mr Salih also drew attention to a political consensus that the US-led coalition against ISIS maintained a legitimate presence in Iraq despite wider regional tension.

But he said that the continuing conflict in Syria should not evolve into a “new normal” and that efforts must be made to bring about reconciliation.

With the new parliament convening in autumn, Mr Salih said he hoped the focus would shift to reconstruction and investment.

Oil revenues would not provide for the welfare of a rapidly growing population. Seventy per cent of the 38 million population is under 30, so 12,000 new schools were needed.

During his trip to London, Mr Salih will attend an oil investment forum and has met Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary.

“Our two countries share many mutual interests, including ensuring the lasting defeat of Daesh and de-escalating regional tensions,” Mr Hunt said.

“This is an important time for Iraq as it recovers from years of conflict and strengthens its relationships both regionally and internationally.”

Mr Hunt said that the UK would reaffirm its close and historic relations with Iraq this week.

Mrs May reaffirmed her government’s stance of “supporting the Iraqi government in building a stable and successful nation”, a Downing Street spokesman said.

Officials “acknowledged the ongoing threat posed by Daesh", the spokesman said.

He said Mrs May stressed the UK’s readiness to provide further support to the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga.

They also agreed on the importance of international co-operation in easing current tension, the spokesman said.

Mr Salih was accompanied by Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Al Hakim and Health Minister Aladin Alwan.

His programme includes a dinner at Lancaster House hosted by the secretaries of state for international development and international trade and engagements.

Iraq is still suffering the effects of the battle against ISIS. The country is also dealing with an infrastructure crisis, corruption and wasteful spending that prompted months of protests last summer and are expected to flare up again.

“Things are improving but we have some way to go before they are good,” Mr Salih said. “For the first time in a long time, the trajectory in Iraq is positive.”

For the demonstrators demanding action to fix the stagnant economy and provide jobs, he said “tangible, serious and significant” progress was needed.

Mr Salih also spoke of a historic invitation to Pope Francis to Iraq, following his visit to the UAE earlier this year.

He said he had issued the invitation last week for the pontiff to travel to Iraq to preach in Ur, the ancient site where the patriarch of the three religions in the Abrahamic tradition was born.