New chapter in Pakistan-Iraq relationship

New chapter in Pakistan-Iraq relationship

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In Pakistan’s foreign policy outlook, the greater Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has always retained importance owing to both ideological and geopolitical reasons. From the beginning, the Middle East desk in Pakistan’s foreign office under Muhammad Assad – the famous Austrian-Jewish embraced Islam and an authority on the Middle East – developed a constructive approach to engage with the newly liberated Muslim countries. Assad’s personal connections with their political and religious elites came in handy. 

This positive outlook eroded once Pakistan decided to join the western security umbrella and became a member of the Baghdad Pact. This had a negative impact on Pakistan’s ties with Arab nationalist regimes that were to dominate Arab political fold in the 1950s and 60s.

Consequently, Pakistan’s partnerships in the broader Middle East remained limited to pro-western governments and mostly monarchies. Although Pakistan’s relationship improved notably with Egypt and Syria in the aftermath of two Arab-Israeli wars, the ties remained troublesome with the Baathist regime in Iraq which was funding Baloch insurgents in both Iran and Pakistan. In 1973, the discovery of an arms cache at the Iraqi embassy in Islamabad resulted in the expulsion of its ambassador. From there onwards Pakistan’s relationship with Iraq remained contentious. 

Interestingly, Saddam Hussain and his policies did resonate with a section of Pakistani street mainly owing to his anti-American rhetoric. This public pressure did put a check on Pakistan’s military participation in the US-led liberation of Kuwait. As the United States subsequently invaded Iraq in 2003, the public mood in Pakistan remained favorable toward Saddam and viewed US actions as unjust. But the fall of Saddam’s regime and the emergence of a new political order in Baghdad did result in a complete normalization of Pakistani-Iraqi ties. 

Pakistan needs to develop new partnerships in the Middle East across sectarian divides and assisting Iraq in improving its security and defense infrastructure will not only contribute toward stability but also shore up Islamabad’s image in the broader Levant.

Umar Karim

As Iraq remains home to the two most important shrines of the Shi’ite world, it also maintains a long-standing religious connection with Pakistanis. With the obstacles and restrictions of Saddam regime being over, it became easier for Pakistani pilgrims to visit the sites. However, Iraq’s gradual descent into sectarian civil strife meant that any comprehensive re-engagement on the political level became elusive.

Security dynamics entered the Pakistan-Iraq relationship as the latter was threatened by a sudden rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh), a terrorist entity that managed to capture several cities of Northern Iraq including Mosul in a swift offensive in 2014. As the Iraqi state and polity re-structured itself and finally took back Mosul from the militants, the Iraqi envoy to Pakistan revealed the support provided by Pakistan to Iraqi security forces.

The Iraqi ambassador highlighted that Pakistan shared intelligence on terrorists and supported Iraqi forces with the provision of arms, ammunition and military medical assistance. He said that Iraqi pilots involved in anti-Daesh operations were trained in Pakistan.

It was the first admission of back-channel security cooperation and intelligence sharing between the two countries and the start of a new relationship where both states exhibited a certain level of trust in each other.

In the Middle East, Iraq remains one such state that doesn’t have a strategic conflict with Pakistan. Unlike Iran, where bilateral ties have been plagued by a divergence in strategic outlooks on Afghanistan, cross-border security issues, and mutual distrust between security apparatuses, the engagement with the current Iraqi state has been only positive. Both Iraq and Pakistan have been attempting to balance their relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia and have also tried to facilitate back-channel engagements between the two sides. Iraqi officials have also acknowledged and appreciated Pakistan’s stance to remain neutral with regard to conflicts in the Middle Eastern, particularly the Syrian civil war.

Pakistan’s military leadership has been trying to translate this political goodwill into long-term institutional linkages and the Pakistan Army chief has also held discussions with visiting Iraqi military officials. Still, the bilateral engagement entered a more strategic phase only recently when the Pakistani defense production minister visited Iraq and met the Iraqi president. Just within a month her visit was reciprocated by the Iraqi minister of defense who met Pakistan’s political and military elites.

It appears that both countries are eyeing an enhancement in defense cooperation that may entail training Iraqi army and air force officers in Pakistan and the acquisition of Pakistan-manufactured arms and weapon systems.  

Pakistan needs to develop new partnerships in the Middle East across sectarian divides and assisting Iraq in improving its security and defense infrastructure will not only contribute towards stability but also shore up Islamabad's image in the broader Levant.  

– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.

Twitter: @UmarKarim89

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