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Why Iraq deserves regional support after Mosul

With the fight for Mosul drawing to a close and Iraqi authorities expecting to announce the city’s liberation from Daesh within days, last week’s regional tour by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is a clear recognition that Iraq’s stabilization will only happen with regional support. His visit to Saudi Arabia — his first since taking on the post — followed by stops in Kuwait City and Tehran, is also a reminder that the region needs a strong and engaged Iraq.

The mismanagement that followed the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein shattered state institutions and elevated sectarian tensions to a whole new level. Most notably, de-Baathification laws and the assassination campaign against Sunni tribal leaders who played a key part in the fight against the brutal Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia set in motion a process of Sunni alienation and estrangement.

The ensuing grievances and the threat to Sunnis represented by Nouri Al-Maliki, Al-Abadi’s ruthless predecessor who is closely aligned with Iranian hard-liners, played into the hands of Al-Qaeda and then its successor Daesh.

Iraq’s Sunni population has probably been the biggest casualty of this crisis. Sunni tribes have been caught between the barbarity of Daesh and the sectarian violence of the Hashd Al-Shaabi, the pro-Iran militias whose actions in predominantly Sunni areas amount to war crimes, as attested by various independent NGOs. Of an estimated 7 million Sunni Arabs in Iraq, more than a third are displaced.

Al-Abadi’s government deserves credit and regional support for adopting a far more moderate and sensible approach than Al-Maliki to the delicate issue of confessional and ethnic tensions, not only regarding Sunnis communities but also the Kurdish issue. Al-Maliki’s departure opened the doors for a Saudi-Iraqi rapprochement.

Both Al-Abadi and Najaf’s religious authorities identified the improvement of ties with Saudi Arabia as an important objective. Since Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, no top Saudi official visited Baghdad. Nor did the Kingdom have an operational embassy in Baghdad until two years ago, when Thamer Al-Sabhan was appointed Saudi ambassador. Simultaneously, Iraq sent Ambassador Rushdi Al-Ani, of a Sunni family from Iraq’s Anbar province, to Riyadh.

Al-Sabhan’s stint was short-lived. After repeatedly alerting to the counterproductive role of pro-Iran Shiite militias in worsening sectarian tensions, last year Baghdad asked him to leave Iraq following pressure by pro-Iran political factions.

A strong and independent Iraq is important for regional stability and security, and it is the only viable path to preventing the land corridors Iran is seeking to hold from Iraq through Syria all the way to Lebanon.

Dr. Manuel Almeida

In the present context, any Iraqi prime minister is aware that his position depends on being in Iran’s good graces. But the setback surrounding the Saudi ambassador did not deter both parties from continuing to rebuild the relationship. In February, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made an unannounced visit to Baghdad. Around the same time, Al-Abadi asked the Saudi-led Islamic anti-terrorism coalition for help in Mosul’s post-conflict reconstruction.

The ties between Iraq’s Sunni tribal leaders is one of the key aspects where its Arab Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, can play a stabilizing role if there is a working relationship with Iraqi authorities. Another is the financial assistance they can provide to the post-conflict reconstruction of predominantly Sunni provinces.

Failure or neglect in this process will probably lead to the next reincarnation of terrorism in Iraq. Experts have warned about the brewing post-Daesh insurgencies in Sunni provinces following the fall of Mosul, due to insufficient efforts to address the root causes of the problem. Daesh is down but not out, Al-Qaeda is not extinct in Iraq, and neo-Baathist groups’ determination to resist Iran’s presence remains as strong as ever.

A strong and independent Iraq is important for regional stability and security, and it is the only viable path to preventing the land corridors Iran is seeking to hold from Iraq through Syria all the way to Lebanon.

Such is the confidence of these pro-Iran groups that they do not make a secret of where their primary allegiance lies. In a recent interview, the leader of one of these militias said his group had not been founded by the Iraqi state and would fight wherever necessary, be it in Syria, Yemen or elsewhere.

Another essential step to blocking the full takeover of Iraq by Iran is to prevent Al-Maliki’s return. With parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, the current government will need to show results by focusing on key governance issues beyond security.

Political and economic investment in Iraq by its Arab neighbors should also eventually translate into a more active and productive Iraqi role in regional issues. The current diplomatic crisis centered on Qatar was reportedly on Al-Abadi’s agenda during his regional tour.

Before leaving Baghdad to Jeddah, he said his government has no desire “to be part of any axis.” This could be interpreted as an attempt to reassure Tehran. But it could also be seen as an outright rejection of the instrumental idea exported by Iran that it is the custodian of all Shiites. Regardless of Al-Abadi’s intentions, it is a reassertion of independence and Iraqi sovereignty that should be welcomed across the region as a very positive development.

• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a consultant and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.