Iraq’s foreign policy in a turbulent region
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a Distinguished Lecture Series featuring His Excellency Dr. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Republic of Iraq’s minister of foreign affairs, on April 12, 2015. The discussion focused on Iraq’s foreign policy, the ongoing internal and regional instabilities, and how the two intersect. The event was moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the BDC.
Dr. Jaafari began his remarks by asserting that Iraqi foreign policy has several constants, including the desire for good relations with its neighbors and beyond, and a willingness to speak with other nations. He noted that he has been very active in engaging with a large number of countries regarding a variety of fields, and that Iraq will continue speaking to all of the states in the region, despite the tensions that divide them. Dr. Jaafari explained that it was necessary to build confidence without meddling, and that constructive relationships can be maintained through Iraq’s commitment to respecting the internal policies and sovereignty of its neighbors. He emphasized that these relationships should not infringe upon Iraqi sovereignty or play a political role in Iraq. He acknowledged that there may be bumps along the way, but said that overall, Iraq currently has good relations with its fellow Arab countries.
Turning to Daesh, or the Islamic State group, Dr. Jaafari characterized its presence in Iraq as an occupation, labeled the group as terrorists, and accused it of destroying Iraq’s heritage and civilization. He strongly asserted that the acts committed by Daesh are not representative of Islam, but are crimes against humanity and against Iraqi civilization as a whole. In addition, Dr. Jaafari stated that the Daesh phenomenon is not exclusive to Iraq, noting that it includes members from 62 countries, and that no country should consider itself safe from the threats of terrorism. He said that that explained why an international coalition had formed against it, which Iraq did not create but has accepted because it is helping to defeat Daesh. When asked about the number and role of foreign forces in Iraq, particularly those of Iran, Dr. Jaafari was adamant that Iraq was not permitting foreign troops to participate on the ground, only advisors. He held that it was Iraqis who had taken the initiative and were responsible for the progress being made, with advice and logistical assistance from allies.
When Shaikh pressed him about the criticisms surrounding the liberation of Tikrit, Dr. Jaafari highlighted that the popular mobilization forces and Kurdish Peshmerga had been brought under the umbrella of Iraq’s military. He admitted that some individual crimes had been committed, but stressed that these were unacceptable and did not reflect the position of the government. He added that entire sects should not be blamed for the crimes of individual people. More broadly, Dr. Jaafari argued that there was not a Sunni-Shi’ite schism in Iraq, though some try to plant one. He noted that Sunnis and Shi’ites coexist in every province in Iraq and often intermarry. Dr. Jaafari recounted that in 2005 as prime minister he worked to bring more Sunnis into the government, and he confirmed that Iraq’s constitution respects all Iraqis. He mentioned that Iraq contains a vast spectrum of identities, including non-Muslims, many of whom, such as the Yazidis, have also been victims of Daesh. Dr. Jaafari explained that the government was now working to confront past injustices and corruption that allowed Daesh to flourish, particularly in Mosul, and to regain the trust of all Iraqis. He noted that each area has its own military force now, based on location rather than sect, which is proving more effective.
Shaikh also asked Dr. Jaafari whether Iraq was coordinating with the Assad regime against Daesh, and what he would say to Syrians that are fighting for freedom and dignity. Dr. Jaafari said there had not been any serious coordination, but that Iraq had passed along messages from the United States about strikes on Daesh and protecting civilians. He went on to declare that Iraq is with the Syrian people, just as it was with the Tunisians, Libyans, and other protestors during the Arab Spring. In Syria, however, Dr. Jaafari explained that because the population was divided regarding Assad, Iraq had to take a step back. He advocated for a political solution, and said that Iraq had advised Assad to release innocents, reform the constitution, and hold elections.
Dr. Jaafari went on to reject military intervention, including the current Saudi-led operation in Yemen, noting that Iraq did not want Arabs to fight each other and get involved in each other’s affairs. He stressed that Yemen’s issues were internal, as the Houthis are Yemeni, in contrast to Daesh, which he described as a non-Iraqi entity. He also criticized Egypt’s military takeover, which he called an internal matter, and rejected the intervention in Libya. Dr. Jaafari did say that Iraq respects the proposal for a joint Arab military force, but that it had not been advised beforehand, and that such an endeavor cannot be hurriedly improvised, just as the European Union and NATO did not develop “out of the blue.” He remarked that Iraq cannot accept inter-Arab wars and that it differentiates between those who launch wars and those who are defending themselves. In that vein, Dr. Jaafari noted that he refused the U.S. intervention in 2003, and had suggested an alternative plan for countering Saddam Hussein’s regime. He added that Barack Obama had been smart in his approach to Iraq and the region and realistic about timelines.
One of the audience’s final questions was about the threats against Reuters’ bureau chief in Iraq. Dr. Jaafari replied that the media is not on Iraq’s side and that some journalists have proven that they take positions based on foreign interests and in pursuit of money. He alleged that some of the reporting about crimes in Tikrit was inaccurate and encouraged everyone to come see what was really happening in Iraq for themselves.
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