Iraqi President Barham Salih addresses UN General Assembly
WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) — On Wednesday, Barham Salih became the third Kurdish leader in UN history to address the opening of its General Assembly.
As president of Iraq, Salih issued a general call for peace, reconciliation, and economic development, with the aim of insulating Iraq from regional and international tensions, so it can focus on reconstruction, following the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State.
Salih reminded his audience of “the Iraqi people’s suffering” over 40 years—since Saddam Hussein came to power in Baghdad.
He noted the four decades of “oppression” and “campaigns of genocide, such as the Anfal genocides, mass graves, the use of chemical weapons in Halabja, the drying of the marshes, and the destruction of the environment.”
“Perhaps, no other country has experienced what Iraq has experienced in terms of span, whether in terms of time, or extent,” he affirmed.
Salih’s words were a useful reminder to those who have come to view Saddam’s rule with nostalgia, as some golden age of stability, before disorder ensued after the overthrow of his regime.
Yet as Salih recounted, that was a time of virtually constant conflict: the war with Iran, which lasted from 1980 to 1988; followed by the invasion of Kuwait in 1990; a brief US-led military campaign in 1991 that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait; after which there were twelve years of a harsh, US-led international embargo; followed, from 2003 to 2011, by the US-led war that ousted Saddam and his regime; and the return to Iraq in 2014 of another US-led coalition to combat the Islamic State.
An entire generation of Iraqis has known nothing but strife and war.
Salih noted that although the Islamic State has been defeated militarily, “We must be aware that there are still terrorist elements that are trying to reorganize themselves.”
That battle is not over, even as new troubles are emerging, above all the conflict between the US and its Gulf allies, like Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other.
Iraq wants desperately to stay out of that fight, and it balances on a tightrope in order to do so.
“Targeting the security of the Gulf and the sisterly kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a dangerous development,” Salih said, as he alluded to Iran’s Sept. 14 strike on Saudi oil facilities. “We in Iraq are very concerned by this tension.”
Salih also affirmed, “Iraq’s policy today is not the same as the policy of the former regime in dealing with our neighbors.” Rather, “our relationship is strengthened by our Arab and Gulf depth” and we seek to develop those ties.
Indeed, the US is promoting an alliance among regional states to enhance regional security. On Tuesday, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted what the State Department called a “GCC + 2 Ministerial.” It included the foreign ministers of the GCC states—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates—as well as the Iraqi and Jordanian Foreign Ministers.
The “GCC + 2” is, in significant part, an alliance of Sunni states against Iran. One reason for including Iraq is to tie it more closely to those states in order to limit Tehran’s influence in Baghdad.
But as he addressed the UN General Assembly, Salih added, “We also care about our relationships with our neighbor, Iran, with whom we enjoy ties of cultural and religious connections.”
As Salih suggested, Baghdad really wants to be left alone to focus on reconstruction of its damaged and failing infrastructure, while facilitating the return of displaced Iraqis to their homes and ensuring that the Islamic State does not re-emerge.
Salih also described the “positive climate” that now exists “in dealing with the accumulated problems” between Iraq’s Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG.)
As Salih noted, those problems are being resolved on the basis of Iraq’s 2005 constitution, a point that is very important to the KRG.
Relations between Erbil and Baghdad have improved significantly since Adil Abdul Mahdi became Iraq’s Prime Minister following the 2018 elections. The previous prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, was never very popular in Iraq and was not elected to that position. Rather, he came into office after Washington insisted that Nuri al-Maliki, a sectarian figure, whose pro-Shia bias had contributed to the rise of the Islamic State, step down as a precondition for US support to combat the terrorist organization.
Among Abadi’s miscalculations was joining with Iran and pro-Iranian elements in Iraq to attack Kirkuk and other disputed territories, following the 2017 Kurdistan independence referendum. In the 2018 elections, Kurds voted against Abadi and succeeded in replacing him with Abdul Mahdi.
Salih delivered most of his UN address in Arabic, but after first ending his speech in Arabic, he repeated his conclusion in Kurdish.
“I salute the families of the martyrs, the victims of oppression, the victims of the mass graves and the Anfal genocide,” he said. “I salute their determination to live a life of freedom and dignity and peace and stability.”
“It is our duty to meet their aspirations,” Salih concluded.
Editing by Nadia Riva