Iraqi FM expects continuity in ties with Turkey, no matter who wins election

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region of Iraq — Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said he does not expect the outcome of the Turkish election to affect Iraq-Turkey ties. 

“Turkey has been a strategic and vital partner for Iraq in all realms — politics, economics and security — and we hope and expect this will continue no matter the outcome of the election,” said Hussein in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Turks will cast their votes Sunday in a seemingly too-close-to-call contest between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu

Hussein deferred when asked if Iraq had a preference in the Turkish election, saying “that’s an internal Turkish matter.” 

“We have our differences and challenges, as many neighbors do, and we expect Turkey, like all countries, to respect Iraqi sovereignty,” said Hussein, referring in part to regular Turkish cross-border military operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which have taken the lives of Iraqi civilians. “But we deal with Turkey and will continue to deal with them on all issues through diplomacy and normal channels.” 

The Kurdistan Regional Government announced on Thursday that it had reached an agreement with the Iraqi federal government on the resumption of oil exports from the region, allowing the Iraq State Organization for the Marketing of Oil to formally request that Turkey resume exports.

Iraqi Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabber subsequently requested that exports resume Saturday. 

Turkey responded on Friday, saying it would not resume exports at that time due to technical issues related to damage from the February earthquakes.

Hussein said that, from Iraq’s perspective, the resumption of oil exports should happen “as soon as possible.” 

Turkey stopped oil exports from the Kurdistan Region in March following a Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce ruling that Turkey owed Iraq $1.5 billion between 2014 and 2018. The decision also rules in Turkey’s favor on several technical issues, and a second ruling is expected in the post-2018 period. 

The Kurdistan Region exports 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) and federal Iraq exports 70,000 bpd via Turkey. 

Asked whether the court case may have been a reason for the delay or a continued source of friction with Turkey, Hussein said, “I haven’t heard Turkey link the pipeline to the court case.”

Inclusive Iraqi leadership on display in Barzan 

The opening of the Barzani National Museum honoring the life and legacy of Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the revered leader of the Kurdish liberation movement and father of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) President Masoud Barzani, offered a compelling image of the partnership between Baghdad and Erbil.

Hussein noted the participation of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, President Latif Rashid, Speaker of the Council of Representatives Mohammed al-Halbusi and head of the National Wisdom Movement Ammar al-Hakim in the event, among hundreds of other officials and guests from throughout Iraq and around the world who made the trek to Barzan for the ceremony. 

“The event has huge importance for Iraq and for the people of Kurdistan,” said Hussein, who has been involved in the Kurdish liberation movement for decades and previously served as chief of staff to Masoud Barzani. 

“This can’t be understated, to have senior Iraqi leaders — Shia, Sunni, Kurds — together under one umbrella, emphasizing that we must work together, that we must be partners with each other. This is a signal to Iraq, to all its peoples, the region and the international community, of a new partnership based upon inclusive leadership, as Kak Masoud noted in his speech,” said Hussein. 

In his remarks, Masoud Barzani praised the region’s partnership with Sudani and called for unity among Iraqi Kurdish parties ahead of elections scheduled for Nov. 18 of this year. 

The attendance at the event of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, seated at lunch next to KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, was also taken as a positive sign for intra-Kurdish relations, coming just three days after a meeting between the two at Barzani’s office, more than six months after Patriotic Union of Kurdistan ministers began their government boycott.

The hope here is that Talabani and PUK ministers will resume participation in the weekly KRG Cabinet meetings on Sunday to address the issues of concern between the parties. 

The museum has special meaning for Iraqi Kurds, said Hussein.

“It’s always important for the upcoming generations to know what’s happened in the past,” he said. “The progress of Iraqi Kurdistan is based on a decadeslong struggle and deep sacrifice. The Barzani Museum, and the life of Mulla Mustafa Barzani, reflect the reality and journey of oppression, resistance and resilience in pursuing freedom.” 

TotalEnergies agreement a ‘done deal’

The Iraqi foreign minister said that agreement on a $27 billion deal between Iraq and TotalEnergies, backed by Washington, is now close to completion. 

“It’s a done deal, and it’s hugely impactful for Iraq,” said Hussein.

The agreement would be the single largest foreign investment in Iraq in recent decades, allowing a major expansion of both oil and natural gas, solar energy and a water project.

“The Total investment will help change the character of the economy in Iraq from being an oil-producing country to a gas-producing country,” said Hussein. “And when we produce our own gas, that means that over time we have the chance to be independent for our electricity generation.” 

Iraq still depends on Iran to import most of its electricity needs. Baghdad also signed a $220 million electricity interconnection project with the Gulf Cooperation Council Interconnection Authority in February this year. 

“The Total deal is also a boost for our environment, climate and health policies,” added Hussein, as it helps with flared gas capture, which has been a major contributor to pollution in Iraq.

Iraqi diplomacy on Iran, Syria linked to internal stability 

Iraq views its role as balancing interests with its neighbors and in the region more broadly to enhance regional stability, with a positive impact on Iraqi politics and society.

Iraq hosted meetings in Baghdad between Iranian and Saudi Arabian officials beginning under former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, which eventually led to the rapprochement announced in March following Chinese mediation.

“We believe that Iraq can play an important role in building bridges,” said Hussein, “and we have done a great job. Some countries reach an agreement somewhere else. But in the end, the discussions and the roots of solving the problem usually pass through Iraq.” 

Hussein said Iraq also seeks to support dialogue to reduce tension between the United States and Iran. 

“We felt this tension and we paid the price,” said Hussein, referring to when Americans had been targets of Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq. 

Asked whether Iraq continues to play a role in conveying messages between Tehran and Washington, Hussein said, “We are in touch with both sides” about ways to reduce tensions and are ready to help when asked, but “it’s really up to them” whether and what role Iraq can play beyond this. 

Hussein explained how enhanced coordination among Iraq, Jordan and Egypt on the one hand and the six Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) on the other can be impactful both in the region and internationally, such as coordination on Syria, with benefits for Iraq’s domestic politics as well.

Iraq has been a key player in the process leading to Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League. Hussein was one of four Arab foreign ministers (along with those from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) who met with their Syrian counterpart on May 1 in Amman to chart the course for readmittance to the Arab League. Saudi Arabia has invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to attend the Arab League summit in Jeddah on May 19. 

Asked whether he expects Assad to show progress on issues of concern to its neighbors and the international community — including 5.5 million Syrian refugees, the illegal Captagon trade and support for the UN political process in Syria — Hussein said, “I hope so,” noting that since Syrian Foreign Minister Feisal Mekdad agreed to the framework, “We have to assume he got the green light from his president.” 

Hussein said Iraq’s regional role as a bridge and not a battleground, including in promoting diplomacy in dealings with Iran and Syria, is vital to its domestic security. 

“Iraq is an open society,” Hussein explained. “When the region is stable, it will affect Iraq positively. Any tension in the region is felt politically. So there is a link between our internal political and security situation and security in the region. This provides a kind of guarantee.”

A transformed US-Iraq relationship 

Hussein said he is pleased with the evolution of the US-Iraq relationship beyond just a focus on military cooperation and security. 

“We are in the process of changing the scope of our ties, giving greater attention to the economy, energy, culture, education, health, the banking system — all essential to have a very healthy relationship with the United States,” said the foreign minister. 

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