Former European Union Ambassador to Iraq, Ramon Blecua, examines whether a national dialogue can change political dynamics in Iraq. He calls on the political class to seize the momentum generated by the Pope's visit to the country.
Ambassador Ramon Blecua
“My dear opponents, I invite you, in all sincerity, to an open and frank dialogue with the government on the basis of the country's interests, security and sovereignty, and on the basis of preserving the security of Iraq, supporting the state and the rule of law.” With these words, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi addressed Iraq's various political actors as Pope Francis concluded his visit to the country, proposing a dialogue to prepare the ground for a national consensus on key reforms, ahead of the forthcoming elections. The Pope’s visit and meetings with senior political and religious leaders, including meetings in Baghdad, Najaf, Erbil and Mosul, have turned Iraq’s extraordinary religious and historical heritage into powerful symbols for national unity. Now, Iraqi political leaders and the international community will have to respond to the call and show their true commitment to living up to the expectations that have been set by the trip. This is not a process that Iraq can undertake without assistance and it may be an opportunity for the Cooperation and Partnership Agreement with the European Union to prove its value and realise its objectives.
Iraq faces a range of interlocked and complex challenges in the political, socio-economic and security fields, and does so in the absence of a single and clear pathway to resolving them. Regardless of the relative weakness of the current government, the fragmented political landscape and the interference of multiple external actors, there is an inherent paradox in the policy choices of any Iraqi political leader. Any significant action in one area can have a negative repercussion over another, and create a blowback effect that will cancel any political gains that may be achieved, mobilizing those within the establishment that would lose the privileges acquired during the course of the post-2003 political order, together with the ethnic and sectarian quota system that underpins decision-making and governance in Baghdad. Even if it is unlikely that the quota system will disappear anytime soon, there is a window of opportunity for nation-wide consensus building on some key reforms that will help the country avoid a financial and political collapse ahead of the next elections.
2020 has been a dramatic year for Iraq, one during which the country was pushed to the brink of vicious violence and economic disaster. Widespread anti-government protests led to indiscriminate repression, the US and Iran crossed a historic line and engaged in direct, and therefore unprecedented military confrontation on Iraqi soil in the aftermath of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, while the decline in oil prices presented the state with an existential economic crisis. The impact of the COVID 19 pandemic was and continues to be a potential final straw that may break the back of the flea-ridden Iraqi camel. Nevertheless, Kadhimi has proven to be more resilient than most expected and his political instinct and the continued support of political allies in Erbil and Baghdad, has managed to turn the Pope's visit into a cathartic moment that could shift the political dynamics of the country.
The problems that Iraq faces are structural and deeply entrenched by the ethno-sectarian division of power that, while serving as a form of checks and balances to prevent authoritarian rule, also weakens the authority of state institutions and promotes corruption and inefficiency. Baghdad-Erbil relations remain laden with mutual mistrust, a distorting factor that often hampers the aligning of their many converging interests. Parallel decision-making structures, especially in the security sector, are another factor that weakens the credibility of the government. And yet, Iraq remains a unique political experiment in the Middle East, fighting to preserve a vibrant political life and a democratic system that is under strain and risks becoming further de-legitimised in the wake of the 2018 elections, which was tainted by widespread allegations of fraud. The rejection of sectarian politics by a large section of Iraqi society, quite evident during the protest movement, is a sign of the vitality of its national identity, as a recent survey by the National Democratic Institute suggests but it has been an intermittent sense of national unity that has also failed to transcend into other parts of the country and in the political space.
I would say the demise of the Iraqi state is still unfounded, but there are serious risks ahead if the course of the country towards a new social contract and meaningful political reforms is derailed. It is easy to dismiss Iraqi political dynamics as a function of US confrontation with Iran, Teheran’s influence in the country or the shadow boxing between Gulf states, and between the Gulf states and Iran. Many international observers fall into these intellectual traps that make sense of Iraqi paradoxes and justify lack of meaningful engagement. In recent years, the EU has been building a foundation for a long term partnership with Iraq, one that was formally presented in 2018 by former EU High Representative and Vice President Federica Mogherini. While much has happened since then, the prospects of a new approach to Iraq and the region under the Biden administration, together with a potential shift in Iraqi political dynamics, could offer a unique opportunity to move the country forward on the basis of a well defined political and economic agenda that would be the result of a national dialogue.
If Iraq's international partners, first and foremost among them the European Union, fail to support the call of Prime Minister Kadhimi and the expectations of the Iraqi people, then this would indicate limited foresight, and it may be regretted in the future. May Pope Francis’s vision and political courage inspire us.
Ambassador Ramon Blecua
Ambassador Ramon Blecua is Spain's Ambassador at Large for Mediation and Intercultural dialogue. He was previously the European Union's former Ambassador to Iraq. Prior to this role he held several postings in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Embassies of Spain in Ghana, Indonesia, Egypt and Guatemala from 1988 to 1996. He was Spanish Representative to the Palestinian/Israeli peace negotiations in Cairo from 1992 to 1995. He participated in the International Commission Security Sector Reform of Guatemala and Cooperation Aid Coordinator for implementation of the peace agreements. In 1997, he was appointed Head of Office of the Director of the Institute for Cooperation with Latin America in the Spanish Agency for international Cooperation and Advisor of the Deputy Minister for International Cooperation and Latin America. Subsequent postings include Chief of Cabinet of the Director of the Cervantes Institute, Deputy Head of Mission in Teheran, Deputy Consul General in Buenos Aires and Cultural Counsellor in Cairo.