Abadi walks on tightrope during Gulf tour
London- At a time when the Qatar crisis loomed large, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi conducted a 3-day tour of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Kuwait, touted as part of an effort to coordinate with Iraq’s neighbours in the fight against terror as well as to boost bilateral economic ties, which should help with the country’s reconstruction.
Iraqi officials said the regional tour was delayed as Baghdad did not want to be seen as taking sides in a row between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, along with Egypt, have accused Qatar of supporting terrorism, a charge that Doha denies.
Abadi’s trip came as Iraqi forces edged closer to liberating Mosul from Islamic State (ISIS) militants, making the case for reconstructing the city more urgent.
Prior to Abadi’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Iraqi Vice-President Iyad Allawi said during a news conference in Cairo that Qatar promoted a plan to divide Iraq along sectarian lines.
“In Iraq, Qatar adopted a project similar to that of Iran: To split Iraq into a Sunni region in exchange for a Shia region,” said Allawi, who was on a visit to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “It is time we all spoke honestly and made things clear (to the Qataris) so we can reach some results.”
Abadi said Allawi’s statement is “unacceptable” and he should not make such remarks in his capacity as vice-president, because it does not reflect the policy of the government. “I think Allawi wanted to please Sisi by criticising Qatar but we do not want this to be mistaken as Iraq’s position,” Abadi said.
Abadi said Baghdad should not take sides in disputes among Gulf countries and that he rejected pressure to be with or against Qatar. “We don’t want to be part of any axis.” Abadi said. “We want to coordinate with these states to continue fighting terrorism.”
The Iraqi prime minister, however, criticised sanctions imposed on Doha by its Gulf neighbours, arguing that they would hurt the people of Qatar, not its government.
Abadi’s position on Qatar did not prevent the Saudis from giving the Iraqi delegation a warm welcome. In a statement, Iraq and Saudi Arabia expressed “their happiness over… a qualitative leap in relations” and stressed the need “to explore opportunities to support economic and trade relations.”
“The countries agreed to establish a coordination council to upgrade relations to the hoped for strategic level and open new horizons for cooperation in different fields,” said a statement by the official Saudi Press Agency.
The visit is seen as a political breakthrough between the countries which have not enjoyed good relations since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Analysts pointed to Washington as being behind the warming of ties, in a bid to draw Iraq out of the orbit of Iran.
Abadi’s press office quoted Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as being “ready for mutual collaboration in the economy, trade, borders, private sector” and the fight against terrorism.
It is unclear if such projects will move ahead. Saudi Arabia previously expressed concern about the role of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias but, during Abadi’s visit to Tehran, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned against measures that could weaken the predominately Shia militias.
“The Americans are against (Iranian-backed militias) because they want Iraq to lose its main source of strength,” Khamenei told Abadi. The United States “and their regional allies (Saudi Arabia) have created ISIS with their money and do not wish to fully eliminate them” in Iraq, he said.
It remains difficult for Abadi to dispel the view that the Iraqi state is under the heavy political influence of Iran, albeit he has sought to portray himself as more independent of Tehran than his predecessor, former Prime Minister and current Vice- President Nuri al-Maliki.
Maliki, who like Abadi belongs to the pro-Iran Dawa Party, is very influential in Iraq. He enjoys the support of many members of parliament, militia leaders, media outlets and more importantly, Tehran.
In fact, while Abadi was abroad making diplomatic manoeuvres, some commentators in Iraq sought to damage the image of his tour. Aws al-Khafaji, the head of the Abu al- Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, one of Iraq’s Iranian-backed militias, told the Russian state broadcaster RT that Abadi “came (to Saudi Arabia) carrying the flag of victory.”
Khafaji claimed that Abadi’s message was: “Iraq, which you (Saudi Arabia) and others have sought to harm, regained its strength. Iraq won against ISIS, whose thoughts come from your (Saudi) environment or media finance.”
Such comments by a senior militia leader in Iraq stand in stark contrast to the letter and spirit of what Abadi was saying and trying to achieve. It further highlights how the Iraqi state is divided, especially when considering that Abadi is nominally the head of all Iraq’s armed forces — including its militias.