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Iraq's president says only diplomacy will solve region's 'real issues'

In an exclusive interview, Abdul Latif Rashid prioritized ‘dialogue’ and ‘cooperation,’ including with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Reporting | Middle East

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s President Abdul Latif Rashid has not had an easy few months in office. Since assuming the position in October 2022, the government has waged a massive corruption probe into the plunder of $2.5 billion from state funds — dubbed the “heist of the century.”

There is growing disenchantment with the United States over the new Iraqi government’s improved relations with Iran, notably the recent deal to barter oil for gas. Conflict has intensified with neighbouring Turkey over water sharing in the midst of drought and soaring temperatures, as well as Turkey’s cross-border operations on PKK militants.

Now, a standoff with Chaldean Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako who claims the government is attempting to erode his authority by revoking a decade-old presidential decree. All these issues must be viewed against a backdrop of internal political disputes, economic uncertainty and power shortages in the sweltering summer heat. In an interview at Salam Palace in Baghdad, President Rashid shared his views on some of the country’s most pressing issues:

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RESPONSIBLE STATECRAFT: Iraq played a pivotal role in the Saudi-Iran deal even though it was finalized in China earlier this year. Among the thorniest issues, accusations that each supports opposition groups against the other. Has this really been resolved? And do you feel confident both sides will respect the terms?

PRESIDENT ABDUL LATIF RASHID: Historically Iraq was a dominant force in the region, in all aspects, including diplomacy. But Iraq has been neglected, suffered for decades, millions have died, and trillions of dollars wasted. Once a sophisticated, educated society, the country lost everything. Iraq, unfortunately, is now in a position to share her experiences, so others can learn from it. This region has a long experience of conflicts, and all sides have become tired of it. Although no one around the table is naive, and there might be some bumps along the road, I expect results as both sides have expressed a genuine desire to normalize things.

"There are so many challenges in the region, and this diplomatic breakthrough can only be welcomed by the region."

RS: What does increased cooperation between Saudi and Iran, and an enhanced role for China in Iraq mean for the United States?

AR: I think the United States’ foreign policy in the region is undergoing some transition, just as its internal domestic policies. Peace and stability in the region can never be a bad thing; that has always been the U.S. message within Iraq. So, I don’t see why it would be any different outside of Iraq.

RS: How do you see the Iran-Saudi diplomatic breakthrough impacting the wider Middle East?

AR: There are so many challenges in the region, and this diplomatic breakthrough can only be welcomed by the region. We can and should focus on the real issues at hand: the water crisis, climate change, energy supply, the move away from fossil fuels, security, and economic growth in the region. All those issues probably impact this region more than anywhere else in the world, and none of those issues can be resolved without dialogue and mutual cooperation.

RS: Do you believe a return to the JCPOA will enhance stability in the region?

AR: Yes, and it will help further stabilize Iraq. The U.S. sacrificed a great deal to liberate Iraq, but sometimes our friends in Washington forget that dealing and having dialogue with Iran does not mean we are choosing sides. We share a 1,000-mile border, have a common history, and a majority share a common religion. Kurds live on both sides of the border, there are Arabs in Iran, and Iranians in Iraq. We currently depend on their gas while Iraq transitions into utilizing our own gas. We are sovereign and need good relations with both sides. The United States is capable of winning over through dialogue. We are here to help if needed, but just as it was with Saudi, it requires genuine efforts from both sides.

"There is a regional humanitarian crisis, there are water and desertification issues that affect everyone, complex geopolitical struggles. Will ignoring Bashar al-Assad solve any of these issues for anyone?"

RS: Your Arab neighbors are reopening relations with the Assad regime. Is there a role for the neighbors to help negotiate an end to the civil war in Syria?

AR: You cannot fix a problem by simply ignoring it. Syria’s problems are not just Syria’s problems. Just look at the issues that affect the region directly. There is a regional humanitarian crisis, there are water and desertification issues that affect everyone, complex geopolitical struggles. Will ignoring Bashar al-Assad solve any of these issues for anyone? Dialogue is key in this region, in an era of being bombarded by misinformation, social media outlets and thousands of information channels, we all as leaders in the region have a duty to cut through the haze, sit and look each other in the eye and talk directly. It does not mean that talking will solve all issues immediately. Of course not. But in any case, it is the responsibility of regional leaders and Iraq to commit to dialogue.

RS: Relations with Turkey remain strained, in particular over U.S. support to opposition operations in Northern Syria. Will Iraq continue to base U.S. troops in Iraq to conduct those operations?

AR: There are U.S. bases all over the world. We are allies, and their bases are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government. U.S. support is important to Iraq, as is Iraqi support to the U.S. The U.S. has sacrificed American blood to rid Iraq of tyranny, so it makes it very hard for Iraq not to stand with the U.S. There is also a lot of potential for Iraqi, Turkish relations to flourish, however Turkey must respect the sovereignty and integrity of its neighbouring states, including Iraq.

"The U.S. sacrificed a great deal to liberate Iraq, but sometimes our friends in Washington forget that dealing and having dialogue with Iran does not mean we are choosing sides."

RS: You mention American sacrifices. Twenty years after the war, there is still debate on whether the U.S. was correct to invade Iraq. What are your thoughts?

AR: Ridding Iraq from the brutality of Saddam Hussein was not wrong. Many of the problems Iraq faces today can still find their roots in the way Saddam ran this nation. Could the years after the fall of Saddam’s regime have been handled better? Only a fool would say no. I can sit here and cite a never-ending list that Paul Bremer, and other players in Iraq, including Iraqis, got wrong, but I don’t want to dwell on the past.

Iraq has had enough of being the victim. Twenty years is a long time. Iraqis need to take responsibility now. We are investing in our infrastructure, engaging in the international arena, clamping down on corruption. It’s time to settle down and present a state that represents and invests in all its citizens. We need to ensure trust and a better relationship between Baghdad and KRG. We are suffering from years of infrastructure neglect, a weak financial system, and the effects of climate change, so now is more important to me than what happened 20 years ago.

RS: This month marks the 6th anniversary of the military defeat of Daesh in Mosul. But Daesh has not been defeated, has it? The ideology survives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. What is the solution?

AR: Daesh is no longer the threat it once was, partly through military efforts, partly through the extremism of its own ideology. But it is still a threat. Daesh is a result of our failures creating desperation. We cannot and must not make the same mistakes again. Poverty, misinformation, poor education and a lack opportunities all fuel this destructive ideology of hate. But Daesh is not merely a Middle Eastern problem, it is a worldwide phenomenon.

Thousands were recruited from the West and are now completely forsaken by their respective nations. Yet we in the Middle East have been left to clean up the mess. Daesh was an ideology of hate. Unfortunately, ideologies of hate seem to on the rise as societies across the world seem to be less tolerant of one another. Gang mentalities and cancel culture have overtaken debate and compromise. The world is not black and white. That’s why eyebrows should not be raised when nations like Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia are in dialogue with others. There needs to be a common effort to raise standards and bring prosperity throughout the region to eliminate the conditions breeding ideologies of hate.

RS: The U.S. State Department has issued comments accusing the president and the Iraq government of “harassing” Chaldean Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako and imperilling religious freedom in Iraq. How would you respond?

AR: I genuinely do not understand how the situation has been so misconstrued by the U.S. State Department. The president of Iraq does not have the power to appoint the head of any religion, let alone impose that head upon all denominations. This was a constitutional matter. A decree was granted by the office of the presidency while the incumbent, President Jalal Talabani, was gravely ill. The decree had absolutely no legal or constitutional foundation. After 10 years, decrees can be either renewed or revoked, and as this was already devoid of legal basis, it had to be revoked. Regardless, the Iraqi state does not have the right to impose anyone on any denomination.

Cardinal Sako had no legal privileges granted to him by the decree in question, so he had nothing taken away. His Eminence is still recognized by Iraq as the head of the Chaldean Church, and he is free to preach and conduct his role. It also became an issue with other religious entities in Iraq. Within my first six months of office, around 16 faith leaders, including other Christian denominations, have lobbied for similar invalid decrees for the sake of prestige, but they all still conduct their roles freely. I cannot appoint or remove a single Cardinal, Bishop, Mullah, Ayatollah or Rabbi.

Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid. Photo credit: Dana Falah
Reporting | Middle East
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