New Iraqi prime minister moves to heal rifts with Arab neighbours

Mustafa Al Kadhimi’s credentials as a US ally could help him dispel suspicions in region about the chances of rapprochement

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi hands over to new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad, Iraq, May 7, 2020. Picture taken May 7, 2020. Iraqi Parliament Media Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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Mere days after taking office, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi began trying to mend ties with Arab states stung by the Baghdad government’s perceived subjection to Tehran.

The prime minister also signalled the possibility of importing electricity from Jordan, which could diversify a domestic energy policy reliant on gas supplies from Iran.

Mr Al Kadhimi – the former intelligence chief confirmed by parliament on Thursday and who was the prime ministerial candidate favoured by the US – indicated that he wanted an Arab role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Rebuilding has been plagued by chronic failure since Iraq’s first democratic elections in the post-Saddam Hussein era, in 2005, ushered in a Shiite political ascendancy. The elections also marked the erosion of ties between post-Saddam Iraq and its Sunni neighbours, many of which had already lost interest in the country, regarding it as another failed state that had fallen under Iran’s orbit.

In a meeting with Montaser Al Zoubi, Jordan’s ambassador in Baghdad, Mr Al Kadhimi “expressed that he is looking forward to increased bilateral trade and more linking up of the electricity network with Jordan,” his office said.

The two sides also discussed reopening a Jordanian military liaison office in Baghdad.

The office was closed as Iraq reduced its reliance on Jordanian expertise to train its security forces.

Mr Al Kadhimi’s predecessor Adel Abdul Mahdi sought to revive a regional grouping from the Saddam days with Jordan and Egypt, which have close ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE – but he was mostly rebuffed.

Saudi Arabia largely abandoned attempts to strengthen ties with Iraq after the attack on a Saudi oil production centre that temporarily knocked out a significant proportion of the kingdom’s energy output in September last year.

Reports at the time suggested that the attack may have been staged from Iraq with the involvement of Shiite militias trained and armed by Iran. Shiite figures connected with some of the militias, which hold sway in the legislature, voted to confirm Mr Al Kadhimi, but voted against a significant proportion of his ministerial choices. 

On Saturday, Mr Al Kadhimi also met Salem Al Zamanan, the Kuwaiti ambassador to Iraq, whose country has long played a mediator role in Arab disputes.

In the meeting, Mr Al Kadhimi said he hoped to “activate” decisions made at an international conference in Kuwait in 2018.

Foreign governments pledged $30 billion (Dh110.17bn) in aid to Baghdad at that meeting. The money stayed mostly on paper as corruption remained a huge obstacle and donors lost trust in the ability of the Iraqi authorities to carry out any serious rebuilding.