Iraq’s National Dialogue

Iraq’s National Dialogue

Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq had a significant impact on the national unity of Iraq. A moment of pride and unity for all Iraqis as media-outlets put the country and its rich history and diverse cultures in a positive light. Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi recognised this opportunity and called for a National Dialogue to tackle the divisions within the country.


Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq was a historic event for the Middle Eastern country. It is the first time that a head of the Catholic Church visited Iraq. This event was significant especially for the Christian minority in the country, having been marginalised for decades, but also for Iraqis as a whole. For instance, when the Pope led a prayer in the ancient city of Ur, the service was not only for the Christians of Iraq, but for people of all the country’s different religions. Muslims, Christians and other members of Iraq’s religious minorities such as the Yazidis and Sabaeans, were present and attending. It is one of the few moments in recent memory where Iraqis from all backgrounds were united on one platform.

From the beginning, it was evident that one of the Pontiff’s main objectives was to underline the importance of interfaith dialogue and unity. This was conveyed through the important visit to the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani in the city of Najaf. Ayatollah Sistani is considered as the most prominent spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shia Muslims. Such a meeting between two important figures of different religions, in a country which has experienced religion based violence for years, carries an important and positive impact on the Iraqi national identity: it sends a message of positivity and unity to the people.

Al-Kadhimi’s Call for National Dialogue

Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi recognised the opportunity of the Pope’s visit, as he attempted to use the positive momentum of the visit to enhance Iraq’s national unity and ease tensions in the country. As a result, Al-Kadhimi launched a call for National Dialogue among all Iraqi parties and groups, to establish a pathway forward for the country. An ambitious call, but one that will be difficult to accomplish considering the difficult and complex nature of Iraq’s political problems. Many issues exist, however this article will delve deeper into that of the Iranian-backed militias and Al-Kadhimi.

The Iranian Influence 

Ever since the 2003 invasion, Iran has successfully established its position as a key player in Iraq’s political and national security system. This influence is apparent at both local and national level. This has been primarily done by establishing a wide group of Tehran-backed militias. Over the course of years, militias backed by Iran are increasingly controlling all aspects of Iraqi governance and economy.

Most noteworthy is the Iranian strategy to let a pro-Western government rule the country in theory, but in practice the majority of the power is held by Iran-affiliated groups and militias. This is a strategy also utilised by Tehran in the case of Lebanon. Iran-affiliated militias, most notably Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, hold significant influence in Iraq the same way that Hezbollah is holding power in Lebanon.

These militia appear to influence all layers of Iraqi society both formal and informal. For instance, research has shown the pervasive control over border customs, airports, tourism and oilfields. Furthermore, their power has grown to an extent where extortion of innocent citizens and businesses has become an everyday occurrence. Therefore, when the mass public protest broke out in October 2019, the people’s demands were almost essentially underlined with an anti-Iranian sentiment. It is the actions of the militias against the Iraqi population, that have strengthened national unity in the country. Through the initiation of a National Dialogue, Al-Kadhimi is attempting to use the positive impact of the Pope’s visit and consequently differentiate himself from Iranian proxies and portray himself as a patriotic Iraqi leader.

The Militias and Al-Kadhimi, a Turbulent Relationship

Al-Kadhimi has attempted to curb the influence of the militias within the government but with little success. As previously mentioned, a call for National Dialogue can be interpreted as a political move on his behalf in order to portray himself as a true Iraqi patriot. This is mainly because it forces parties who are unwilling to engage in conversation, to publicly identify themselves. Al-Kadhimi recognised that the militias will most likely not participate in this national dialogue.

A lot of Al-Kadhimi’s success will depend on the nature of his relation with the militias. Over the years, the militias have conducted actions which clearly undermine the power of the Prime Minister. These actions are not constant, a pattern is noticeable: often they are taken amidst a context of complex political turmoil. A message to the Prime Minister reminding him of the power of the militias.

Therefore, recent events illustrate the existence of significant issues concerning the Prime Minister. For instance, in December 2020, after a series of arrests by the Iraqi government, a Kata’ib Hezbollah spokesperson publicly threatened Al-Kadhimi with torture. Similarly, in March 2021, an Iran-affiliated militia paraded with a compelling show of arms and artillery throughout Baghdad. Once again publicly threatening Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and other political parties. The militias have gone as far as assassinating a senior officer of the intelligence services, due to accusations against the intelligence community for cooperating with US forces.

The militias do not seem to consider the political risk of their actions towards the Iraqi public. These actions have increased Iraqi unity as the people have witnessed the negative implications of Iran-affiliated militias in the country. As a result, the militias’ actions increase the risk of revolt against them even further, increasing in turn the likelihood of more Iraqi unity. It is important to note that a revolt against the Iran-affiliated militia do not translate into a support of the current Iraqi government. The Iraqi government is widely viewed as part of the problem as they allowed the militias to obtain such powers in the first place.

The National Dialogue, a Way Forward for Iraq?

It is unlikely that this National Dialogue will achieve a large success. Although the Pope’s visit can be seen as a big win for Al-Kadhimi, it is not sufficient for him to portray himself as a true Iraqi leader. This puts Kadhimi in an extremely difficult position, as he is not succeeding in convincing the Iraqi public nor the militias of his actions, thus resulting in a difficult relationship with all actors. 

The challenges Iraq faces are too tough to tackle with a National Dialogue. Furthermore, it is still unclear what exactly this dialogue will address. The goal, scope and parties of the national dialogue need to be established, for instance, will it only be for Iraqis or will foreign parties also be present?

In the momentum of the Pope’s visit, one could make the argument that the country is more united. However, one visit from the Pope is very unlikely to change the fate of the nation overnight. Regardless, the visit was a moment of genuine unity and hope for all Iraqis, in the country that is commonly considered as the cradle of civilization.

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