Over the past few weeks, Iraq has slowly but surely begun its re-descent into chaos. According to reports, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest Iraq’s current state of governance, with over 250 already being killed in clashes with security forces. One protester even died last week, after being hit in the chest by a tear-gas canister in Baghdad. At the time of writing, Iraqi protesters have just stormed Iran’s consulate in the holy city of Karbala, resulting in four further deaths and at least 19 injuries.
I can’t help but notice that, when Iraq is being ruled as a US client state, clashes with security forces that see hundreds of civilian deaths are no big deal. It’s not as if the US can hustle the international community to legitimize another invasion of a country it’s invaded twice before. It does therefore ring quite hypocritical when the sole basis of Washington’s call for the Syrian government to step down in 2011 seemed to be based on allegations of a similar fact scenario. But that is a topic for a separate article.
Then again, it was the US who plunged Iraq into chaos to begin with. The US, together with the UK, toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, fired close to 500,000 police and military personnel (which to some extent contributed to the rise of ISIS), and facilitated the deaths of over one million Iraqi civilians in the process.
But forget all of this trivial history – a mere coincidence, some might say. What should really be troubling us is not Washington’s involvement in Iraq. In fact, this time around we have a new enemy so potent – diggings its claws well into Baghdad – that we shouldn’t worry about Russia, Iran or even North Korea.
Our new enemy, and by proxy, Iraq’s new enemy (given that only we know what is best for Iraq), is China.
Last week, 23 countries, including the US, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, condemned China at the United Nations over its alleged mistreatment of the Uighur ethnic minority. A group of 54 states, on the contrary, praised China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.”
What may come as a surprise for many is that Iraq, a Muslim-majority nation, wasn't among the 23 states condemning China. In fact, a number of Muslim-majority nations have either sided with China or remained eerily silent while the western world condemns Beijing for allegedly persecuting the lives of close to 2 million Muslims.
China may not have contributed heavily with personnel on the ground to help the Iraqi government defeat ISIS, but Iraq has benefited from a growing partnership between the two nations in other respects. It’s worth noting that official Chinese documents appear to stress the fact that China’s intentions in the Middle East are purely economic, as these official documents rarely put an emphasis on security cooperation. This runs in stark contrast to the US, who seem to approach the region from the inside out.
The strengthening of ties between Iraq and China may end up starting to make Western nations panic.
At the end of last month, it was all but confirmed that Iraq was set to join China’s Silk Road Project. At the time, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi praised China for its “valuable support” during Iraq’s time of war and civil strife. While in Beijing this past September for an official visit, Mahdi also described his trip as the beginning of a “quantum leap” in bilateral relations between the two nations. The visit itself also led to the signing of eight memoranda of understanding (MoUs) and a framework credit agreement.
It goes without saying that Iraq is one of the world’s most oil rich nations. In the years 2003-2018, its oil revenue surpassed $850 billion, with oil production nearly double what it once was. Iraq has become China’s third leading source of oil (or second source of oil, depending on who you ask). China has emerged as Iraq’s number one trading partner, displacing India. In fact, China has become the Middle East region’s largest trading partner, and you can bet this hasn’t scraped by Western nations without notice.
Furthermore, Chinese investments in Iraq are not wholly focused on oil, but crucial infrastructure as well. This follows a similar pattern of Chinese investments in other parts of the world, particularly Africa and the Pacific Islands, where China finances key infrastructure projects. While blasting China’s current aid practices, one Australian politician accused China of building “roads to nowhere” in the Pacific.
Iraq has also purchased billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese military equipment over the last few years, including armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), precision-guided rockets and ballistic missile systems. Iraq supposedly uses Chinese-made drones for counter-terrorism purposes, suggesting yet another area of competition for the United States.
While in Baghdad earlier this year, China’s deputy minister of foreign relations also reportedly said Beijing was ready to contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq.
One could argue, on the other hand, that all of this assistance in light of the growing relationship between the two states pales in comparison with the US’ contribution. The US did man a coalition on the ground and provide the equipment in which an ISIS defeat was inevitable. Since 2014, the US has provided more than $2.5 billion in humanitarian funding for programs in Iraq, as well as $5.8 billion in security programs.
However, like most places across the globe, it is not the fact that China is outdoing the US in terms of numbers which is the problem; it’s the fact that China is even at the table which seems to irk commentators in Washington. Becoming increasingly wary of an ever-expanding Chinese presence, the US has been examining multiple ways in which it can prepare for a world where China has become a major competitor.
In this context, we should be suspicious of mainstream media pundits or representatives of the Trump administration and its allies who constantly pin every single threat in the Middle East as emanating from Iran. There can be no doubt that the US and its cohorts share disdain and deep distrust towards Tehran, but at the end of the day, even Tehran’s ability to disrupt the US and its grand strategy for the global chessboard is quite limited. In fact, Iran is only really a threat to the current world order because it aligns itself with countries like Russia and China, who are slowly but surely facilitating the erosion of Washington’s global influence.
As the Diplomat, aptly or incorrectly, has warned, China, not Iran, is the power that western nations should begin to fear rising from the rubble of war-torn Iraq. This article was unsurprisingly hounded upon by the Atlantic Council – beacons of democracy, freedom and human rights that they are – who republished it in part.
It boggles the mind that we live in a world where the one country who invaded Iraq in 2003 (after killing over one million civilians through a draconian sanctions regime), plunging the nation into a chaotic state of disarray, should concern itself with the “menacing threat” posed to Iraq’s stability by someone else. What does stability even mean in this context, given the US actively destabilized Iraq and attempted to destabilize its neighbours?
It’s also worth noting that China and Iraq were strengthening ties and working together on development projects, such as the one at Al-Ahdab oilfield, long before the US sanctioned and invaded Iraq in 2003. It was the US invasion and the takeover of post-war Iraq by the US and its allies which put a major halt to China’s plans, inevitably excluding Beijing from a piece of the Iraq-pie.
Now, as appears to be happening quite spectacularly in many parts of the world, Washington risks being driven out of countries it previously held a stranglehold over and losing out to China.
Unfortunately for the US, Iraq already appears to be finding its feet in this regard. Just recently, the US declared that troops withdrawing from Syria would be stationed in Iraq. Iraq responded almost immediately by saying US troops did not have permission from Iraq to do so. This echoed an earlier statement from Iraq that it would not be used as “a launching pad for aggression against any of our neighbouring countries.” President Trump’s statement earlier this year that he would station forces in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran was similarly shot down.
I struggle to comprehend the logic in commissioning the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dead Iraqi civilians, the thousands of dead US personnel, the decades spent and billions of dollars expended on a nation only to watch the nation cozy up to America’s number one economic and military rival.
To put it bluntly, from all possible angles, the decision to invade, occupy and destroy Iraq must be seen as a complete failure.
And if the US is concerned about China’s expanding reach inside Iraq, whether rightly or wrongly, it only has itself to blame.