Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq comes as country faces ‘multiple crises’

Iraq_Flagthree.jpg The Iraqi flag. Credit: Alyaa99 (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Pope Francis' trip to Iraq comes at a time when the country faces severe political, socioeconomic, and security challenges. The European Union's ambassador to Iraq has called Iraq's current overlapping crises "the perfect storm."

Ambassador Martin Huth said Feb. 16 that Iraq is currently "facing multiple severe challenges compounded by both the COVID situation and an unstable regional environment."

Huth addressed other diplomats as the keynote speaker at the virtual launch of a report on Iraq by the Atlantic Council: "Iraq: A Road Map for Recovery." 

"I would like to stress the absolute and overriding need for the Iraqi economy to reform and for Iraqi citizens to understand this need. We see this as a -- if not the -- priority for the country," the EU ambassador said.

"And as Iraq is facing multiple political and socioeconomic crises, this may well be the last opportunity to achieve what must inevitably be a completely new economic model for Iraq."

He spoke specifically of the need to diversify, create investment opportunities, and revive the agricultural sector, while severely curtailing spending in other areas such as government salaries. He mentioned the ongoing dispute between governments in Baghdad and Erbil as a potential obstacle to achieving economic reform.

The new report, written by Dr. C. Anthony Pfaf, sheds light on the circumstances surrounding the widespread anti-government protests in Iraq, which began in October 2019, and the socioeconomic realities behind the country's high unemployment.

About 60% of Iraqi's population is under the age of 25. According to the report, "many of these young Iraqis are unemployed, or at least under-engaged, meaning that they are often impoverished, bored, and resentful. Many have been traumatized by nearly constant warfare."

The report adds: "Years of conflict have significantly diminished educational opportunities, making many Iraqis unemployable even in trades, due to their lack of skills. There are likely not enough skilled Iraqis to take on technical jobs, should the need for these jobs increase."

The report estimates that there is a 36% unemployment rate for young people in Iraq. Low oil prices, government waste and corruption, and a poor security situation further hinder the country's potential for economic growth.

When the protest movement first gained ground in October 2019, Pope Francis urged Iraqis to "seek the right solutions to the challenges and problems of the country" with the support of the international community.

The pope told Iraqi government leaders to "listen to the cry of the population that asks for a dignified and peaceful life."

On the first day of Pope Francis' upcoming trip to Iraq, he is scheduled to deliver a speech to government authorities and civil society leaders in the presidential palace in Baghdad.

He will also have private meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and Iraqi President Barham Salih, in addition to a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of Shia Muslims in Iraq, and Kurdistan authorities in Erbil.

Following a rocket attack on Erbil on Feb. 15, rumors circulated in Arabic media that the pope's trip would be postponed due to security concerns and the coronavirus outbreak. Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, the Vatican's ambassador in Baghdad, released a statement the following day denouncing the rumors as "fake news."

A Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, or the Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for this week's attack. 

The Islamic State, a Sunni jihadist group, claimed last month's suicide bombings in Baghdad that killed 32 people.

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Security continues to be a major challenge facing Iraq, according to the report, which says that Islamic State continues to operate and destabilize the country, while Iran-backed militias also contribute to the current "unstable security situation."

In a United Nations Security Council meeting on Feb. 10, Vladimir Voronkov, the UN counter-terrorism chief, said that the threat posed by Islamic State terrorist fighters is "on the rise again."

He added that some 10,000 fighters, mostly in Iraq, are pursuing a protracted insurgency posing "a major, long-term and global threat."

Ambassador Huth said: "I do not need to touch upon the importance for the international coalition against Daesh [Islamic State] to remain in Iraq, as this is evident to all." 

"What is also evident is that Iraq must not be the permanent proxy battlefield it has so often been. Yesterday's attack on coalition facilities in Erbil was another reminder of this."

Iraq borders Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Kuwait. The Iraqi government is currently attempting to strike an equilibrium and balance in its foreign policy, according to the ambassador, who said that "due to its geographic position Iraq … needs to maintain its best possible relations with all of its neighbors."

"And while international focus is too often elsewhere, for example on Syria and Iran, this country needs active attention and support in view of both the positive and negative potential it holds," he said.

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