Davos 2020: Iraq will reject any bid to undermine it, president vows

Barham Salih tells World Economic Forum that 'sovereignty of Iraq is crucial to Middle East'

Barham Salih, Iraq's president, delivers a speech during a special address on day two of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policy makers attend the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos from Jan. 21 - 24. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
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Iraq will not allow any bid to undermine its sovereignty to succeed and will not be distracted from its national interests, its president warned the international community yesterday.

“The sovereignty of Iraq is crucial to the Middle East,” Barham Salih told the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Mr Salih urged business and government leaders at the meeting to help maintain that sovereignty through dialogue.

“This is a dangerous moment. We all need to be worried and concerned,” he said.

He was referring to tension between the US and Iran that is spilling into Iraq, including the killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad.

“Escalating regional conflict is threatening our sovereignty. We are truly in the eye of the storm,” Mr Salih said. “This part of the world doesn’t need another conflict.”

He said he would strive to ensure good relations with all countries and that Iraq had no interest in being dragged into “conflicts not of our own choice or making”.

Mr Salih said Iraq was grateful to the US-led international coalition against ISIS and that Iran also played a role in that fight.

“We share with Iran long-standing ties," he said. "Our northern neighbour Turkey is of major consequence.

“It is not in our interests to choose to ally with one at the expense of others as long as our sovereignty is respected.

“Our policies and diplomatic ties must be driven by our national interests only.”

But the wider Middle East region must have stability for Iraq to also have a chance, Mr Salih said.

America’s continuing military presence in Iraq has been in sharp focus after the US killed Suleimani. Retaliatory strikes by Iran were on Iraqi bases where the US military is present.

Iraq’s Parliament has called for the expulsion of all foreign forces.

“This is something that Iraq and the US need to sit down and have a dialogue about, the heart of which is Iraq’s sovereignty, the people of Iraq and its hard-won stability,” Mr Salih said.

Earlier yesterday, he met US President Donald Trump and discussed support and American troops in the country. Mr Trump said US troop numbers in Iraq, at 5,000, were “historically low”.

They also talked about the need to maintain the fight against the threat posed by ISIS.

“This mission needs to be accomplished, and I believe you and I share the same mission for a stable, sovereign Iraq that is at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbours,” Mr Salih told Mr Trump.

He laid out his vision for Iraq at the UN in September.

“We were hopeful then," Mr Salih said. "The scourge of ISIS had been defeated.

"Iraq stood at a threshold of a new era, when we can finally move past decades of sanctions, war and atrocities and work together towards the economic opportunities Iraqis so deserve.

“I still believe, despite the odds of the day, that Iraq can be a catalyst for change.”

He also addressed the deep unrest in Iraq, with protests around the country.

“My country is going through really difficult and tough challenges," Mr Salih said.

"Protesters, mainly young Iraqis, have been putting their lives on the line to demand change. They want their voices heard and answered."

The protesters’ patriotism and commitment to Iraq is evident “daily in the streets of Iraq and they are demanding in a peaceful way” to have a free and democratic system.

“This is a generational shift that reflects a yearning for something more,” Mr Salih said.

He condemned “the shameful acts of violence” that have led to the deaths of more than 600 protesters and said the perpetrators would be dealt with one day.

Hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands wounded since demonstrations erupted in October, fuelled by anger over corruption and a lack of economic opportunities.

The protests grew into demands for political reform and an end to Iran’s influence in the country.

Iraq’s Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, resigned in November after the country’s most powerful Shiite figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, withdrew support for his government.

Mr Salih said Mr Al Sistani’s role in promoting peace and tolerance from Najaf had been crucial.

The president, in power since 2018, has refused to endorse any nominee for prime minister who does not represent the fulfilment of protesters’ demands for a new government that can advance the country.

Mr Salih said that more work was needed towards the development of infrastructure and creation of jobs.

Iraq has a population of about 38 million people, 65 per cent of whom are under the age of 30.

“These demographic and economic realities cannot be dealt with by the status quo," Mr Salih said.

"The public sector is already straightened. The private ­sector needs to feel empowered. Corruption needs to be tackled.”

He said Iraq also needed 12,000 new school buildings.