The visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Baghdad on 2 September 2020 was his first since he assumed office in 2017, but was the third for the top leaders of the French government since Mustafa al-Kadhimi took over as prime minister of Iraq, after the visits by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in July 2020 and French Minister of the armies (Defence Minister) Florence Parly at the end of August 2020. It was also the first visit by a senior foreign official to Baghdad since Kadhimi took office in May 2020. Those visits carried many indications and agreements that focused on the future of the war on terror and the development of economic relations between the two countries.

This paper deals with the evolution of the relationship between Baghdad and Paris in light of the recent French diplomatic moves.

Macron’s visit

French President Emmanuel Macron was keen to meet the three Iraqi presidencies, and revealed, during a conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a set of understandings, including: activating the roadmap for cooperation between the two countries that was signed in 2019; launching the "Support Iraq’s Sovereignty" project and rejecting foreign intervention in its affairs with the help of the United Nations (UN); "normalising" all armed forces, in reference to militias affiliated with Iran; discussing military cooperation to confront Daesh (IS); and participating in the reconstruction of Iraq and the provision of energy sources.

For his part, Kadhimi said that his government seeks to develop relations with Paris in the security and military fields, and revealed the commissioning of French companies to build a peaceful Iraqi nuclear reactor for generating electric power in Iraq under UN supervision.

Iraqi President Barham Salih, after meeting the French President, emphasised the need for Iraq not be a “battleground for the conflicts of others” and for “the respect of its sovereignty” and preventing “intervention in its internal affairs”. He stressed that his country still “needs support in order to counter terrorism and extremism” adding that Iraq still faces challenges and “needs the support of friends for the reconstruction of affected areas and drying up the sources of financing terrorism”.

The warm welcome given to the French President, which also included a state dinner attended by most leaders of the political blocs, especially those close to Tehran, reflected the Iranian welcome of the French role that is to be expanded in Iraq.

Iraq’s Sovereignty Project

Until this moment, no information is available about the details of the "Support Iraq’s Sovereignty" project or initiative, which was announced by French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Baghdad, as opposed to the detailed paper that was revealed to solve the political, security and economic crises in Lebanon. According to some Iraqi sources, the idea of ​​the project focuses on preventing Turkish and Iranian interventions in Iraq with the help of the UN and the European Union (EU), and may include providing financial and military assistance to help Baghdad provide security and protect the borders.

With regard to Iran, Paris has good historical relations with the Iranian political regime, and behind the scenes of the meetings that took place in Baghdad, there was talk about an upcoming French-Iranian dialogue to discuss the French ideas in this regard, especially that Tehran prefers the French influence in Iraq to the US influence, and does not object to the idea of Paris’s leadership of the international coalition against terrorism in Iraq. However, Washington’s position is not clear yet, although some media reports indicate that the French president came to Baghdad after contacts with the US administration whose positions remain unclear due to the imminent date of the presidential elections in November 2020.

According to Macron, the initiative also supports the efforts of the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to safeguard Iraq’s sovereignty, given that Kadhimi seeks to initiate a direct dialogue with Tehran regarding its support for the Iraqi militias and its management of the conflict with Washington inside Iraqi territories, in addition to its economic and commercial role. All this can be achieved through a Paris-led European sponsorship or participation.

While Macron seeks, through his "Iraqi" initiative, to besiege Turkey and pressure it to achieve gains in the Eastern Mediterranean, Kadhimi hopes to employ this initiative to limit the role of Iran’s military arms in his country, considering that the problem with Iran appears to be more complicated for Kadhimi compared to the crisis with Turkey that does not have the tools to destabilise security in Iraq’s central and southern regions, or the political actors that can control the future of the political regime as does Tehran which directs the major Shiite militias and parties.

Counterterrorism and Turkish interventions

France has participated in the US-led international coalition in Iraq for the war on Daesh (IS) organisation since 2014. On 25 May 2020, it announced the withdrawal of the remaining 100 of its forces in Iraq, which were training Iraqi forces, in addition to some personnel in Iraqi and US bases, due to the coronavirus epidemic crisis and the pressures it was subjected to after the decision by the Iraqi Parliament at the beginning of 2020 to end the international coalition’s role in the country.

During her recent visit to Iraq, the French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly declared that "France is ready to resume the programmes for training Iraqi forces and joins forces with Iraq to defeat terrorism", noting that her country "supports Iraq’s shift away from the politics of axes". On the other hand, the Iraqi Minister of Defence Juma Inad announced that the ministry would develop the contracts concluded with the French side regarding advanced weapons.

Perhaps the most important aspect in the remarks of the French Minister of the Armies is the emphasis on her country’s support for Iraq with respect to the Turkish military interventions, even as the dispute is escalating between the EU and Ankara against the background of Turkey’s exploration of gas in the eastern Mediterranean in the waters near the Greek islands.

Paris seeks to take advantage of the tension in the relationship between Baghdad and Ankara (due to the continued incursion into and bombardment of Iraqi territories by Turkish forces on the pretext of pursuing the opposition Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party  (PKK)), to pressure the Turkish government and force it to engage in negotiations that may also include the issues of Iraq, Libya and Syria.

With respect to the Iraqi side, the government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi has welcomed any international effort to prevent Turkish operations in the north of the country, but it will not rush to return of French forces even for training missions, for two important reasons: the first relates to Kadhimi's desire to reduce the number of foreign forces in Iraq and get rid of the pressure of the large Shiite blocs that often seek to embarrass him in this regard and accuse him of working for Washington. Kadhimi has also agreed with Washington to change the description of the US forces in Iraq in the period ahead, as they would be "training" or "advisory" and non-combatant forces. He does not want to complicate the situation by returning other foreign forces except after consulting the leaders of the Shiite parliamentary blocs. Second, Baghdad does not want to escalate the dispute with Turkey that has the ability to reduce the water level in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, or to get involved as a party to the conflict between Ankara and the EU, which may soon be resolved through dialogue and diplomatic efforts.

The economic role

For years, Paris has been seeking to achieve great economic influence in Iraq and to obtain important investment concessions there. It has already supported projects related to water, arts and culture, but the large projects have not been completed until today. According to the French Foreign Minister, his government shall advocate the need to support Iraq economically, the return to the decisions of the Kuwait Conference related to reconstruction, and the activation of those decisions so that countries that participated in the Conference can fulfil their promises in this context. He indicated that his country "continues to provide support in various fields, especially rebuilding the Iraqi economy". Through this statement, the French minister aims to activate the French economic role, especially in the field of investment in the areas of construction, housing and infrastructure in the cities liberated from Daesh.

The most prominent projects that Paris seeks to carry out in Iraq include the following:

1. The Baghdad elevated metro line, which was agreed upon at the end of 2019.

2. Construction of an Iraqi peaceful nuclear reactor, similar to the reactor that it provided to Iraq in the 1970s.

3. Obtaining investment opportunities in the areas liberated from Daesh related to infrastructure projects.

The Shiite parliamentary blocs are likely to accelerate the process of ratifying contracts and deals with the French side, and to pressure the Kadhimi government to conclude more of them, in the belief that France is the best economic and security competitor to the US in Iraq.

Sunni apprehension versus a Shiite welcome

It seems that the Sunni forces are wary of the new French project in Iraq, as opposed to the Shiite welcome of what the French president has proposed. For example, the Sunni Member of Parliament Dhafer al-Ani argued that “sovereignty is not a grant but a national will”, questioning Paris’s intentions in this regard. Former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said that "France’s record in international relations raises suspicions about the initiative". Perhaps the proximity of the Sunni blocs to Ankara explains why they fear the French role more than their fear of the French rapprochement with Iran, because most of the Sunni actors in Iraq today are close either to Turkey or Qatar, and seek to be in harmony with Turkey’s positions on international issues, including its current crisis with the EU. They count on the US role alone to counter the Iranian influence in Iraq.

Interestingly, Macron focused more on the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, even in his talks with the President of the Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani, attempting to avoid talking about Iran so as not to arouse the ire of the Shiite actors who are enthusiastic about his visit. Paris – which contributed to the convergence of views during the consultations for the enactment of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC) law in 2016, does not classify the Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, and joined forces with Tehran to name the Lebanese Prime Minister Mustapha Adib (who recently stepped down) – may argue that resolving the issue of the Iraqi Shiite militias is not a priority within the "Support Iraq’s Sovereignty" initiative announced by Macron.

Conclusion

The Iraqi government’s investment in international relations is important to secure Iraq’s supreme interests and reinforce its sovereignty and independence from the Iranian and Turkish axes. Economically, Iraq’s interests require any Western (or Arab) economic role to be at the expense of Iranian influence, especially in the various energy fields, in addition to military support for the Iraqi forces in terms of training and arming.

It remains to say that the upcoming US elections would be an important variable in defining the features of the French role in Iraq and in Iraq’s future in general. For example, President Donald Trump’s stay in office may largely contribute to the success of plans to curb the Iranian influence. He may prevent Turkey from further incursion into Iraqi territories and reject the idea of ​​France’s leadership of the international coalition armies in Iraq. However, in the event that Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins, he is expected to focus more on US domestic affairs, and would allow for a greater role for the European allies in Iraq. He may even return to the nuclear deal with Iran after introducing amendments to it.

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