On December 20, the Second Baghdad Conference was held in Amman, Jordan, attended by Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, foreign ministers from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Turkey, Bahrain and Oman.
As for other regions, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell were present. Their interest had more to do with vested interests – in the face of a worsening energy crisis, Iraqi oil represents a certain value.
The main issues discussed were security in Iraq, access to food and water, and energy resources and supplies. One of the main topics of the conference was the continuation of negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. The participants were optimistic about the program of the event and, despite a number of contradictions between the participants, there were no disagreements at the conference. All parties expressed readiness to continue a constructive dialogue and negotiation process on a variety of issues. It is known that the U.S. expressed skepticism about renewing the nuclear deal with Iran, although Tehran had also previously warned about the short-sightedness of Washington politicians.
The closing statement of the Second Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership declared support for Iraq in its efforts to strengthen the constitution and law, to strengthen governance, to create institutions, to ensure comprehensive development and work to enhance economic integration, indicating that the convening of the second session of the conference reflected a desire to support Iraq’s central role in enhancing regional economic cooperation.
The conference followed a change in the country’s leadership, as the Coalition Structure, which includes various parties, became the majority after Mohammed Shia al-Sudani of the Shiite Dawa Party left parliament. He had previously served as Iraq’s Minister of Human Rights. The Coalition Structure is believed to have close ties to Iran, although this does not mean that they follow Tehran’s political will.
In addition to the Coordination Structure, which has 138 deputies out of 329, the coalition of Iraqi state administration includes the Alliance for Sovereignty, led by the Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbusi (who is focused on the UAE), and the two main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The organized opposition since the resignation of the Sadrists in June is rather weak, giving a chance for quick adoption of new laws. Sudani has withdrawn a number of bills, including a law on compulsory military service, which caused widespread controversy, as well as other proposals that had dubious ideas reeking of corruption. A number of high-profile cases involving Iraqi banks and oil companies are currently underway. The Sudanese government has also put forward an ambitious program to serve as a “service government” that provides employment opportunities and supports the poor classes.
Sudani has prioritized Iraq’s integration with Arab states, including the Gulf states, and also seeks to build on Iraq’s recent success as a center for regional diplomacy. Sudani’s predecessor, Mustafa al-Qadhimi, deepened Iraq’s integration with Egypt and Jordan and opened a new chapter in Iraq’s relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Relying on close personal ties with Arab and regional leaders, Qadhimi initiated Iranian-Saudi and other negotiations through behind-the-scenes channels and convened the first conference on Iraq with Arab and regional leaders, which was held in August 2022.
Iraq now needs investment from the Gulf countries and, especially, coordination between Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council for the energy system. The Gulf states also want Iraq to be stable and less dependent on Iran. Sudani also has an idea for a deeper partnership with Turkey on gas and energy supplies to Europe, so he is optimistic about the prospects for an oil agreement between Baghdad and Erbil. He says it is in Baghdad’s interest that Iraqi Kurdish parties settle their dispute and reach an agreement with Baghdad. In a meeting between Kurdistan Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and British Ambassador Mark Bryson-Richardson on December 14, the Kurdish party noted the efforts being made to resolve all disputes between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government. A day earlier, the Iraqi Council of Ministers had approved sending 400 billion dinars to the Kurdistan Region for November and December as part of its share in the federal budget. The decision came after a series of meetings between a high-ranking Kurdistan government delegation and top Iraqi officials. In addition, negotiations are taking place directly between Kurdistan Prime Minister Barzani and Sudani himself.
But in order for Sudani to succeed in his activities, Iraq must stay out of regional conflicts. This was one of the messages of the Iraqi prime minister to Washington, Tehran and the Gulf countries. Now the question is what conclusion these leaders will draw from his words. Iran, of course, would like to maintain its influence, given that part of Iraq’s population is Shiite. At the same time, there is a problem with the activity of Kurdish elements from the territory of Iraq against Iran, because of which the northeast of Iraq is subjected to regular strikes (a similar situation is typical for the northwest, but here the strikes are carried out by the Turkish party). Both the Kurdish government and Baghdad consider this a violation of sovereignty, but it will take more than a statement to stop such operations.
Both Iran and Turkey demand that the central government of Iraq stop engaging in destructive activities against them by the Iraqi Kurds.
Nevertheless, in bilateral negotiations, both Baghdad and Tehran are optimistic. Sudani visited Tehran in late November to discuss building confidence and developing bilateral relations. The leaders of both countries believe it is possible to increase trade between them from ten to twenty billion dollars a year. The interests of the Arab countries are clear, although Iraq as a platform for normalizing relations with Iran is also important. The most difficult issue is ridding Iraq of U.S. pressure, as Washington clearly intends to continue using the country for its activities in the region. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also unequivocally stated that he would no longer help the U.S. in fomenting regional conflicts. After a while, Washington ousted him as head of government through a vote of no confidence in parliament. Although Sudani has no immediate prospect of such a parliamentary coup because of little opposition, one cannot discount other opportunities for Washington to pressure him or initiate another political crisis.
Terrorist activity, particularly ISIS (banned in Russia), remains a serious problem for Iraq. On December 18, ISIS militants killed nine federal police officers in Kirkuk Province. An improvised explosive device reportedly detonated under a convoy of federal police vehicles near the village of Safra in the sub-district of Rashad, near Mount Hamrin. The explosion was followed by a clash between police and ISIS fighters. One terrorist was killed. For this reason, a high-ranking delegation was sent there a day later to investigate. The delegation included Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Abdul Amir Yarallah and Deputy Chief of Joint Operations Command Qais Khalaf al-Muhammadi.
ISIS activity mainly takes place in the disputed territories between Erbil and Baghdad. Both civilians and security forces are attacked. On December 14, three soldiers, including a lieutenant colonel, were injured and three others were wounded in an explosive device attack near Tarmiya, about 30 kilometers from Baghdad. In a similar attack on an Iraqi Army roadblock south of Kirkuk in late November, ISIS fighters killed four soldiers.
So Iraq still has a lot of problems. But the main one, even after the elimination of the remnants of terrorism, will continue to be Washington’s interest in retaining its influence in the region at all costs.