The US, Russia and China are vying for a greater say in Iraq. Who will win?

An oil field in Kurdistan, Iraq (Photo by Adobe).
The US, China and Russia are vying for more control in Iraq. Ahmad Abdel-Rahman explains how they are going about it.


When former US President Donald Trump announced the US's withdrawal from northeastern Syria, he abandoned the Kurdish forces that had fought alongside the US against the Islamic State for Turkey. He also paved the way for the possible resurgence of ISIS. Regardless of the moral and humanitarian dimensions of this decision, subsequent developments have shown that it was a reckless. This decision was a disaster that demonstrated to all the enemies of the US and its allies that a world superpower cannot be relied on and that it is irresponsibly volatile.

Despite Trump's talk of withdrawing from the Middle East as a whole, the US remains engaged in Iraq. Some US forces will be moved from Syria to Iraq, as the US continues to provide its support for Baghdad's counter terrorism efforts. The US's commitment to Iraq, and to the Middle East more broadly, has become more ambiguous. However, in the long-run, in light of recent events, it is worth examining the geopolitical stakes in Iraq, especially with regard to Russia, to better understand how Trump's move might jeopardise events. Here are some thoughts on Russia.

"There are elements of soft power and hard power that characterise Russia's strategy in Iraq, and they have had a tangible impact," said Anna Borshevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute. "The Kremlin is doing deals and building relationships in energy, security structures, and the media, in Iraq, and with the government as well", Borshevskaya said.

Borshevskaya noted that Russia's total energy investment in Iraq has exceeded USD10 billion, as a result of years of the Kremlin's efforts in Iraq after the 2003 war, when the new government in Baghdad cancelled several energy contracts with Russia under former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. In February 2008, Moscow wrote off the bulk of Iraq's USD12.9 billion Soviet-era debt in exchange for a USD 4 billion oil deal that included access to West Qurna 2, one of the world's largest oil fields.

In 2012, the Russian companies ,"Lukoil" and "Gazprom Neft", entered the energy sector in Iraqi Kurdistan and won a number of contracts. Three years later, as US energy companies began to reduce their presence in Iraq due to security concerns; the Kurdistan Regional Government invited more Russian companies there. The Russian oil giant Rosneft, which was sanctioned by the US in 2014, signed oil contracts with both Baghdad and the Kurdistan government. Moscow also provided a USD 3.5 billion loan to the Kurdistan government, which is to be repaid to Rosneft through oil.

In October 2013, Moscow began delivering weapons to Iraq as part of a USD 4.2 billion arms deal. The deal was revived after Iraq withdrew from it the previous year, over allegations of corruption. In early 2014, Washington delayed the delivery of F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters to Iraq due to both congressional stalling and the programme's long bureaucratic process which was out of sync with the immediate situation on the ground.

Moscow may not be the dominant player in Iraq, but it has espoused the perception that, unlike the US, it does not promise much. But when it does promise it delivers. Since December 2018, planning has begun for the reopening of the Iraqi-Russian Cultural Center in Baghdad, which was closed by Moscow in 2003. In this context, RT Arabia TV Channel contributes to the formation of a positive image of the Kremlin. Iraqis consider this media outlet a legitimate source of information.

Moscow faces competition in Iraq from Iran, but the Russians tend to try to cooperate with Iran rather than work toward opposing goals. Anti-Americanism and joint opposition to American influence in the Middle East have united both countries for years, yet the two countries have not been so aligned for centuries. However, the war in Syria, has elevated the partnership to unprecedented levels.

Baghdad is also expanding its outreach to China as part of a broader effort to fund the country's reconstruction. As Beijing's appetite for energy continues to grow, it is expected that China will increasingly turn its sights on the Middle East. According to the latest figures issued by the Russian Sputnik agency Russia's USD 1.7 billion bilateral trade with Iraq pales in comparison to Baghdad's USD 30 billion trade with Beijing. However, when it comes to security and energy development, Iraq turns to Moscow rather than Beijing.

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Saturday, 30 September 2023