Pak-Iraq Ties: From Historical Irritants to Present Opportunities

At the time of Pakistan’s independence, the diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Iraq were established on the basis of common religion and similar political inclinations i.e. both Pakistan and Iraq were in the US camp. The mutual partnership between the two countries was further strengthened by the US-led Baghdad Pact which had developed the security and strategic interdependence between Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. However, the “honeymoon” of two countries remained short-lived. In 1958, as the US-backed monarchy was overthrown by the military, the regional as well as international politics of both the states became increasingly divergent from each other.

Brief History of Opposition

The newly established regime in Iraq – on the basis of its anti-imperialist ideology – was pro-Soviet. On the other hand, Pakistan was actively collaborating with the US against the Soviet Union as evident from the U-2 Plane Incident in 1960. Furthermore, being an ally of the Soviet, Iraq became hostile against the Gulf States which were dependent upon the US security for the survival of their regimes. Pakistan’s cordial relations with the Gulf Monarchies also prevented it from establishing active diplomatic contacts with Iraq. Throughout the 1960s and especially in the 1970s, Iraq became the major recipient of Soviet’s arms which threatened the Gulf security. After the downfall of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israel War, Iraq emerged out to be the most pivotal state for the Soviet Union as it received the largest share of Soviet’s arms after India during the 1970-75.

In the first half of 1970s, under the leadership of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan experimented with Islamic Socialism and hence, reinvigorated its relations with the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, Iraq had concluded its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. However, despite closer to the Soviets, both Pakistan and Iraq, still, couldn’t advance their mutual diplomatic ties for two major reasons. First one was the recognition of Bangladesh by Iraq in 1972 which further sour the relations while second was the support of Iraq to the Baloch insurgents through its embassy in Islamabad. The 1973 raid on Iraqi Embassy in Islamabad brought to forefront the Iraq’s sponsorship of Baloch insurgents in Pakistan. These two incidents highlighted the scale of cooperation between Iraq and Pakistan’s arch-rival – India – against the interests of Pakistan. The decade of 1970s saw the oil boom in the Middle Eastern states which led to the close economic and security partnership of Iraq with India. Thousands of Indian workers sought job opportunities in Iraq’s oil sector in return for importing Iraq’s oil. Furthermore, Indian military also trained and equipped Iraqi Army and Air Force. The military collaboration between the two countries also led to Iraq’s supporting stance over Indian occupation of Kashmir which also brought it in contradiction to Pakistan’s interests.

During the 1980s, Pakistan and Iraq again found the opportunity to be in alliance with each other owing to international developments. Pakistan was the frontline state for the US in the Afghan War while Iraq became the chief client of the US arms and ammunitions in its war against Iran. Nevertheless, the military adventurism of Iraq after the Iran-Iraq war and its invasion of Kuwait led to the condemnation from Pakistan. Pakistan also deployed its troops for the security of the Gulf region, primarily the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the second half of 1980s, when Pakistan experienced the rise of sectarianism, Iraq was found involved spurring the sectarian rift inside Pakistan through its sponsorship of Sawad e Azam Ahle Sunnat – a sectarian group in Pakistan. In the post-1991 era, the relations between Pakistan and Iraq were also hampered due to the imposition of international sanctions on Iraq.

Factors of Non-Interaction

Apart from the aforementioned events, the major factor which led to the weakening of ties between Pakistan and Iraq was their divergent objectives which instilled the behaviour of overlooking each other at the international level. Pakistan’s strategic objectives were aligned with the Gulf Monarchies like Saudi Arabia and UAE which had been crucial for Pakistan in its financial crisis. Since the Gulf Monarchies were sceptical of Iraq’s regional role, Pakistan had to side with its Gulf partners. Similarly, Iraq found the economic potential of India and China in the respective phases more attractive than that of Pakistan. In fact, the policy of overlooking each other continued even after the collapse of Baathist Regime in 2003. In post-Saddam era, as the Iraqi oil potential exploded, China and India became the major recipients of Iraqi oil. Both the states also continued to develop the energy and power sector of Iraq as well. On the other hand, Pakistan maintained its traditional ties with the Gulf States and didn’t benefit from the renewed energy potential of Iraq.

Another important factor in the non-interaction between Pakistan and Iraq was their focus on their respective territories and regions, hence preventing them from fostering their foreign policy goals beyond their neighbourhood. Since 2007, Pakistan was engulfed in its fight against terrorism in different phases in its north-western region of FATA. Similarly, Iraq also experienced the civil war in 2007 and the subsequent rise of ISIS after 2011. Apart from the security, both the countries also faced the internal political and economic unrest. The inter-sectarian political rifts in Iraq, flexing of muscles by Iran and the US to dominate Iraqi political landscape led to the weakening of the state’s apparatus. Since 2016, Iraq witnessed massive mass protests, primarily led by Muqtada Al-Sadr against the political system and the deteriorating economic situation of the country. Likewise, the decades long struggle of Pakistan with the democratic system and the domination of elite culture, also led to the mass protests across the country, mainly the 2013 and 2014 Islamabad sit-ins by Tahir ul Qadri and Imran Khan, respectively.

Present Opportunities

In the present circumstances, the foreign policy outlooks of both Pakistan and Iraq have been shifted from geopolitics to geo-economics. Many international factors like the rise of Asia and globalization, and domestic aspects like the crippling economy, inflation, unemployment and mass resentments have led both the states to focus on their economy. Moreover, as the nuances of terrorism have been minimized by both the countries i.e. Pakistan’s successful operation in South Waziristan destroyed the network of terrorism and Iraq’s triumph over the ISIS, the focus is now on reconstructing the economy.

The recent visits by the high officials of Pakistan and Iraq into each other’s countries highlight the growing cooperation and willingness of interaction between the two states. In this regards, following areas of cooperation are of greater importance.

  1. Defence

In the defence sector, the interests of both Pakistan and Iraq now converge with each other. Both the states have witnessed the rise of dogmatic groups as well as terrorism, leading to the deterioration of security across their respective countries. Thus, it presents the opportunities to both the states to share their experiences with each other and develop the framework of intelligence sharing, military exercises and trainings. Pakistan, in this area, has the advantage over Iraq and could assist Iraq in various ways. Firstly, Pakistan can provide trainings to Iraqi cadets in its prestigious military academy. Secondly, as Pakistan has the strong military industrial complex and produces edge-cutting military equipment, Pakistan can export these to Iraq to boost up the operational capacity of Iraqi Army. JF-17 Thunder fighter jet and other tanks and ammunitions are of greater importance in this regard. On the other hand, the emerging threat of ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan can also bring the two countries in security collaboration with each other. Iraq has the experience of fighting ISIS and can provide valuable insight of its modus operandi with Pakistan to prevent it from gaining momentum in the border regions of Pakistan.

  1. Economy

Economy is probably the most vital feature in the partnership of both the countries. Iraq, despite having the huge energy resources, is facing the economic collapse as well as the power deficiency. Although Pakistan’s own economic vulnerability does not allow it to put in the economic investments in Iraq, however, Pakistan can contribute through its manpower resource. Pakistani workers choose the Middle East as their priority destination for the work and hence, Pakistan could offer Iraq the services of its workers in reconstructing the energy sector. In return, Pakistan could also be benefitted from the foreign remittances which those workers would send back to the country. This could also transform into a consolidated energy partnership and Pakistan could import oil from Iraq. Not only would it allow Iraq to expand the scope of its oil exports but would also lessen Pakistan’s dependency on the Gulf oil which, sometimes, force Pakistan to adopt the compromising policy in favour of Saudi Arabia.

  1. Tourism

In case of tourism, Iraq is the major Middle Eastern hub for the religious tourism especially regarding the 10th of Muharram and Arbaeen. The pilgrims from Pakistan participate in these religious events in high numbers. However, both Pakistan and Iraq are unable to take any benefit from these events. The primary reason is the lack of government’s participation in managing and facilitating the pilgrimages. Unlike Hajj, there is no central authority to govern this type of tourism and the major tasks are carried out by the private enterprises which manage the travelling, visits, hospitability and other responsibilities. Due to the large sum charged by the private enterprises, many pilgrims often seek the government’s help to facilitate in their tour. Hence, both Pakistan and Iraq could draft the mechanism of establishing the central authority which could initiate the special flights and buses, and arrange the stay of the visitors. The inclusion of the governments of both the states would not only result in the lessening of the prices but it could also allow both the states to receive the revenues from it.

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About Faraz Naqvi 3 Articles
The author is an MPhil scholar of International Relations based in Islamabad, Pakistan. His areas of interest are the Middle East, South Asia, Foreign Policy, and Terrorism.