Dubai: A coordination council between Saudi Arabia and Iraq will be shortly set up to strengthen ties between the two countries, Ahmad Jamal, the spokesman for the Iraqi foreign ministry told Gulf News in an exclusive interview.
The countries are expected to boost cooperation in various sectors including oil, economy, trade, intelligence and counter-terrorism.
A string of high-level visits will also take place in the near future, Jamal said.
Iraq is hoping Saudi Arabia will foot the bill of Mosul’s reconstruction after a Iraqi forces liberate the city from Daesh control.
Jamal said that ties between the two countries which had been strained in the past were reinvigorated following a recent visit by the Saudi foreign minister to Baghdad.
The visit paved the way for a one-on-one meeting between Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi during the Arab Summit in Jordan earlier this month.
After the US, under former president George W. Bush, ousted Saddam Hussain from power, Iraq has experienced a power vacuum which Iran has stepped into.
Riyadh has long-complained that Iran is meddling in the affairs of Arab states, pointing to Iraq as a prime example.
Jamal said that his country was not under the influence of Iran and that “Iraq will never be Iran’s backyard”.
Below is the full transcript of the interview:
GN: What triggered the improvement in ties between Iraq and Saudi Arabia?
AJ: The opening of the Saudi embassy in Baghdad earlier this year was an important step in repairing the relations between the two countries.
Also, Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir’s visit opened doors. There will be more high-level visits in the near future.
GN: How will the two countries boost cooperation?
AJ: A new coordination council will be established in the near future to strengthen the relationship in various sectors like oil, economy, trade and even intelligence and counter-terrorism.
When Al Abadi and King Salman met in Jordan they discussed many things including possibly opening the borders between the two countries and direct flights between Baghdad and Riyadh.
There is also talk about opening Iraq’s oil refinery sector to Saudi companies and having Saudi Arabia help write off Iraq’s debt.
The two countries also agreed to stop provocative rhetoric on both sides.
GN: Relations between Riyadh and Baghdad have been strained in the past few years. What do you think caused that strain?
AJ: Iraq was unfortunately caught in the middle of the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but we do consider ourselves as a Gulf country and are keen on improving our relationship with GCC states and other Arab countries.
GN: How you describe the relations between Iraq and UAE?
AJ: Iraq has a good relationship with UAE but we are looking to boost it especially in economic field. We hope to develop our relationship with our brothers in the UAE.
We encourage UAE companies to invest in Iraq, particularly in its infrastructure. We hope the UAE will play a big role in rebuilding Mosul and other cities damaged in the battle to liberate them from Daesh rule.
GN: How is the battle for Mosul progressing?
AJ: The battle is still going on and in its final stages, but we have encountered complications because Daesh has been using civilians as human shields and planting explosives everywhere which has unfortunately caused many civilian deaths despite the Iraqi forces efforts to prevent this.
GN: What is the Iraqi government doing to help displaced Iraqis?
AJ: The ministers have established a donation drive to channel international aid and money and make sure it gets to the affected people. The issue of displacement is currently the government’s greatest challenge as the numbers are overwhelming — nearly 3 million. The government has established makeshift camps in Al Khazir and Al Gayara but we need more help from the international community.
We hope to return the displaced people back to their homes as soon as possible.
GN: There have been widespread accusations that the Shiite Al Hashad Al Shaabi militia fighting alongside Iraqi forces have indiscriminately targeted Iraqi’s Sunni population and have even committed war crimes. They also say it is an Iranian-controlled militia that shouldn’t be recognised by the government. What is your response to these sentiments?
AJ: Anyone who helps us in fighting Daesh is welcome. Iran was one of the first countries to offer their help in fighting Daesh. They have supplied Al Hashed with guns, ammunition and its military advisers have provided logistical support, but the group is not controlled by Iran. We have military consultants from US, Canada, France and the UK as well.
Furthermore, the Iraqi parliament officially recognised Al Hashed as an official force on November 26 which puts them on par with the Iraqi army.
GN: Iraq, has for the first time, recently conducted air strikes on Daesh in Syria. Was this a one time thing or will it continue with this?
AJ: We are primarily focused with fighting Daesh in Iraq, but we have not ruled out more air strikes inside Syria. It comes under the general war on terrorism and is carried out in full coordination with Damascus.
GN: Is Iraq controlled by Iran?
AJ: Absolutely not. Iran is an important ally but we are not part of its political ambitions in the region.
GN: Does Iraq need American troops on the ground to maintain security?
AJ: We do not. We have our own soldiers, but we do need ammunition as well as logistical and air support from them. The US has helped Iraq for the last 14 years and it will remain our top strategic partner. I do not, however, see a need for an American military base to be set up in Iraq.
GN: The Kurdish flag was recently raised in the city of Kirkuk. How does the Iraqi government view this?
AJ: We do not accept this and this was a wrong move by the Kurds. The city is home to Arabs, Kurds, Muslims and Christians and its important we are united in fighting Daesh. The issue of Kirkuk is important but we should first defeat Daesh.