What struck me most during my visit in Iraq is the scale of the challenges that the country is facing. Recent history is very telling. We all remember the US-led invasion in 2003 and the turmoil the country has lived through. Then came the rise of ISIS, which managed to wrest control over a large part of Iraq in 2014, condemning millions of Iraqis to either live under medieval rule, or flee their homes.
The retaking of Mosul and other ISIS-controlled areas in 2017 allowed Iraq to regain full sovereignty. However, this was achieved at great cost. Many Iraqi perished and many cities were largely destroyed. There are still too many internally displaced people in Iraq unable to return to their homes, which simply no longer exist. Decades of harsh dictatorship under Saddam Hussein were followed by years of political turmoil and fragmentation, with a central government unable to guarantee neither security nor basic services to its population and leaving the space open for militias, who often operated with foreign support.
Since the military defeat of Da’esh, many problems still remain: communitarian tensions, a worrying level of corruption, a lack of accountability of the state apparatus, a weak economy (2020 GDP is still lower than in 1990 according to the World Bank), plus many internally displaced people and migratory pressures. These factors are undermining Iraq’s stability. In addition, these internal difficulties are reinforced by regional tensions. The country has become one of the main battlefields for the Sunni - Shia rift in the region. Because of this, Iraq is still struggling to find a proper place in the Gulf region. Iraq would benefit from de-escalation in the Gulf and a return of all parties to the JCPOA and from a peaceful political solution in Syria.
Looking at these regional tensions, our visit came at an important moment. Last week, on 28 August, the Iraqi government brought together regional leaders at the “Baghdad conference”, an initiative to promote regional de-escalation and dialogue. Iraq is key for promoting security and stability among the regional powers: Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as Turkey. The conference brought them all to the same table. This is not a given and was an important diplomatic achievement by Prime Minister Khademi: the EU strongly supports these efforts to foster regional solutions to regional tensions. Improvements at regional level would help creating the conditions for Iraq to unlock its potential and to become a country able to take advantage of its generous oil revenues, to implement economic and administrative reforms, and to consolidate its federal system.
The Iraqi government is already working on much-needed socio-economic and governance reforms, which the Iraqi people clearly demand, as we saw during recent protest movements. These reforms are essential to start turning the page on bad governance, instability and foreign interference. They are also key to ensure the financial viability of the country and provide jobs opportunities, especially for the youth. With 60% of Iraqis below 25 years of age, it will be one of the most urgent tasks for the new Iraqi government after the elections. The EU has invested €1.4 billion in Iraq since 2014 and will continue to support these efforts to build a stable Iraq, also by providing technical assistance.
I met with Iraqi President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Fuad Hussein, the Speaker of Parliament Mohammed Al Halbousi, as well as with United Nations Special Representative for Iraq and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. During my visit, I was particularly glad to meet representatives from civil society, human rights organisations and protest movements to listen to their concerns and to share ideas on what the EU could do. Iraq’s vibrant civil society is a reason to be hopeful for the country’s future. Iraqi human rights defenders and political activists work every day for the future of their “watan”, their nation, and their efforts are key to the consolidation of Iraq’s political and economic stability. However, the continuing violence targeting civil society, political activists and journalists is of major concern and hampers the country’s development. I have been insisting with the authorities, both in previous contacts and during this visit, on the importance of thoroughly investigating and prosecuting all acts of violence against civil society actors.
As EU, what we can and want to do is accompanying and supporting efforts by the Iraqis themselves to consolidate and strengthen their country’s stability, security and prosperity. However, to achieve meaningful progress, the challenging security situation needs to improve. Da’esh continues its outrageous attacks on Iraqi civilians: just last week, we saw yet another deadly attack in Kirkuk. Other rogue elements also continue to commit acts of violence. The EU is committed to the Global Coalition against Da’esh and supports Iraq’s security sector reform through expertise by our EU Advisory Mission in Iraq, EUAM.
On 10 October, Iraqis will go to the polls. It will be crucial that these elections will be free and fair, with a high level of participation across the country. Under such conditions, these elections could be an important milestone in the country’s democratic consolidation. To support this process and at the request of the Iraqi government, we are deploying an Election Observation Mission (EOM). This mission will cover the whole election process and produce a public report with recommendations.
During my meetings with authorities, we also discussed the important migration file. I reiterated the EU’s strong appreciation for the authorities’ decision to temporarily suspend flights to Belarus and asked for this suspension to become permanent. It is in our common interest to prevent the instrumentalisation of migrants by the Belarusian regime and to protect people from being exploited by criminal networks. The Iraqi authorities know that this is a very important issue for us and are ready to deepen concrete engagement.
Continuing my visit to Erbil, I conveyed the same messages to President Nechirvan Barzani and the leadership of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, including Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and Former President Masoud Barzani. There too I found serious challenges, with internal divisions, the presence of foreign armed groups and recurrent interventions by neighbouring countries. Relations between Baghdad and Erbil are vital for Iraq’s stability. The EU cannot but support and encourage further efforts to improve these relations.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has shown enormous generosity by giving refuge to over two million displaced people, who arrived in the course of only six months. They represented 30% of their population, which shows the size of the challenge. We tried to help them in this endeavour: since 2019, 237,000 people have benefitted from EU-funded camp management services. We will continue to support projects for the integration of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in local communities.
In addition to the official meetings, I briefly visited the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, which is one of the most important in the world. It covers the 5000-year history of Mesopotamia, and therefore plays a crucial role in safekeeping and highlighting the country’s rich heritage. I am glad that the EU Advisory Mission works with the museum. It is the first EU civilian crisis management mission that has been tasked with cultural heritage protection.
In Erbil, I also visited the World Heritage site of the Qelat citadel, which is another impressive site full of beauty and history. It is considered the oldest permanently inhabited site in the world. It benefits from an EU-funded project to create jobs for Syrian refugees and vulnerable Iraqis in the cultural heritage sector.
My visit was welcomed by all interlocutors and we received clear calls for a strengthened EU engagement in Iraq. In recent years, Iraq has gone through very difficult times, of war, violence and strife. But I am more hopeful regarding its future. It is up to Iraq’s citizens and leaders to draw on the historical roots of the country to build a state that can help bring peace to the whole region. The EU is a committed partner to help Iraqis see that happen.