In recent years there have been several studies attempting to discern what Iraq’s foreign policy is after its emergence from the U.S. invasion and civil war. They have largely concluded that the country lacks a unified foreign stance. That’s because Iraq’s elite and government are deeply divided. The result is that each leader follows his own foreign agenda. Until the differences between the ruling parties are worked out, Iraq will continue to have this fractured stance.
Iraq’s political leaders drive its foreign affairs. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the government was opened up to a number of different actors. These included the Dawa Party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Sadrists, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Iraqi National List, and others. These have all made up the ruling coalition since 2005 when sovereignty was returned. All of them had ties with foreign countries prior to 2003, and have maintained them since then to bolster their own standings within Iraq. Because of the mistrust between the major lists, they have each carried out their own foreign policies regardless of the central government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is one major player. He takes advice from a small coterie of aids. These include National Security Adviser Falah al-Fayadh and chief of staff Abdul Halim al-Zuahiri. The premier has used both as intermediaries with foreign governments. In 2010 for instance, Zuahiri was sent to Syria to improve ties with President Bashar al-Assad, and in December 2011 Fayadh met with Assad to discuss an Arab League peace initiative meant to end the fighting in his country. President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and head of the KDP Massoud Barzani is another actor. He has forged close ties with Turkey in recent years to bolster his drive for Kurdish independence. President of Iraq Jalal Talabani on the other hand has good relations with Iran. The Supreme Council has similar ties with Tehran, and its leader Ammar Hakim often meets with foreign representatives. ISCI parliamentarian Homan Hammoudi, head of the foreign relations committee has tired to give a larger role to the legislature as well. As long as the rivalries persist between these parties, they will continue to follow their own foreign policies. That also allows other countries to interfere in Iraqi politics by backing politicians, and playing them against each other.
Iran Air jet at Baghdad airport. Maliki has refused to search such planes for weapons and supplies heading to the Syrian government despite repeated requests by the U.S. (Reuters)
The Syrian conflict is a perfect example of how the divided politics of Iraq play out in its international relations. Prime Minister Maliki has tried to portray Baghdad as a neutral actor in the fighting. He has supported various peace proposals, called for negotiations to settle the fighting, and told the opposition forces that he supports political change. At the same time, he has not called for President Assad to step down, not followed sanctions, has rejected the use of violence, and not stopped Iran from shipping weapons and supplies through Iraq into Syria. Despite promises to Washington, Maliki has not checked Iranian planes flying to Syria for instance. The prime minister has also sold fuel oil to Syria at discounted prices. The premier is afraid that the overthrow of the Syrian government would open the country to Islamists who could then turn their attention to Iraq. This fear is shared with many of the other Shiite religious parties. Supreme Council foreign relations committee head Hammoudi has called for a peaceful end to the fighting in Syria, warning that the country might end up being divided, and descend into sectarian violence. Likewise, Badr Organization head and Transportation Minister Hadi al-Ameri is believed to be coordinating the Iranian flights to Syria. Militiamen from Sadr’s Mahdi Army, the Badr Organization, the League of the Righteous, and Hezbollah Brigades are all believed to be currently fighting in the war for the Assad regime. Some are also there to protect the Sayida Zainab mosque outside of Damascus, which was damaged by a suicide bomber in June 2012. A Badr official told the Associated Press that Iraqis were armed with heavy weapons to protect that holy site. Various Sunni groups have supported the Syrian rebels. A prominent Anbar sheikh said that fighters from his province had gone to Syria to fight. Maliki is also concerned that Iraq’s Kurdish parties will benefit from the Syria conflict. President Barzani has armed and trained the Kurdish National Council. That is a rival to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is an arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Barzani has backed the National Council as part of his policy of keeping close ties to Turkey that is fighting the PKK, and is worried about it gaining more support in Syria. Here is a case where many of Iraq’s political parties are carrying out their own foreign policies. The Shiite parties are united in their fear of what might come after the Assad government, and are therefore giving its implicit and covert support. Some Sunni leaders are having their tribesmen go fight for the opposition. Likewise, the KDP is trying to both support Kurds struggling against the regime in Damascus as well as opposing others to keep its links with Ankara. All are on different sides just as they are in Iraq.
Iraq is not about to solve its political differences anytime soon, which means it will maintain its divided foreign policy. National unity governments like the present one made up of rival parties will continue into the future. That means that the various lists will keep up their bickering over power. Leaders will keep on turning to foreign support as a result, and push their own agendas abroad. There is no reason for them to follow the government’s line in that type of environment. Ironically, this comes just when Baghdad is attempting to re-assert itself in the region and world. That will be a muddled affair as the Syrian conflict shows.
Abdul-Zahra, Qassim and Schreck, Adam, “Iraqi Shiites brace for violence amid Syria fears,” Associated Press, 10/25/12
Arango, Tim, “Syrian War’s Spillover Threatens a Fragile Iraq,” New York Times, 9/24/12
Aswat al-Iraq, “Right of Syrian people in multiple democratic regime stressed, Maliki,” 8/31/12
Chatham House, “Iraqi Foreign Policy: Actors and Processes,” November 2012
Look up their names for more examples
Ghazi, Yasir and Arango, Tim, “Iraqi Sects Join Battle in Syria on Both Sides,” New York Times, 10/27/12
Gordon, Michael, Schmitt, Eric, and Arango, Tim, “Flow of Arms to Syria Through Iraq Persists, to U.S. Dismay,” New York Times, 12/1/12
Gwertzman, Bernard, “Difficult Time Ahead for Iraq,” Council on Foreign Relations, 1/10/13
Landis, Josh, “Nuri al-Maliki’s Strategy towards Syria and Syrian Kurds,” Syria Comment, 8/22/12
Lederer, Edith and Daniszewski, John, “Iraq Floats Plan to Get Syrian Opponents Talking,” Associated Press, 9/29/12
Markey, Patrick, “Iraq wary over sectarian pull of Syria crisis,” Reuters, 9/4/12
Markey, Patrick and al-Salhy, Suadad, “FEATURE-Syria turmoil stirs Iraqi tribal sympathies, hopes,” Reuters, 10/31/12
Reuters, “Iraq’s Maliki says backs Syrian people’s wish for reform,” 9/14/12
Saigol, Lina and Peel, Michael, “Iraq sends crucial fuel oil to Syria,” Financial Times, 10/8/12
Al-Salhy, Suadad, “Iraqi Shi’ite militants fight for Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, 10/16/12
Stansfield, Gareth, “The reformation of Iraq’s foreign relations: new elites and enduring legacies,” International Affairs, November 2010