Leaders convene for 2-day event

Sulaimani Forum 2024 tackles Iraqi security and economy amid wider mideast conflict

SULAYMANIYAH — Leaders convened for the eighth Sulaimani Forum on Wednesday at American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), which hosts the two-day policy conference, drawing political, economic, and academic figures to discuss pressing issues facing the Middle East.

Opening Addresses Focus on Conflict and Dialogue

Former Iraqi President Barham Salih, founder and chairman of AUIS’s board of trustees, delivered welcoming remarks at the event, just days after Iran launched a volley of drones and missiles across Iraq’s skies to target Israel in retaliation for an attack on its consulate in Damascus, Syria on April 1.

“We gather today under challenging circumstances against the backdrop of open conflict and escalating tensions in the Middle East,” Salih said. “The forum is being convened against the backdrop of conflict and dramatic escalations that threaten not just the region but beyond.”

Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani, in his opening address, highlighted the dangers of domestic political infighting and the lack of dialogue between Iraqi parties. He argued such divisions create opportunities for terrorist groups, referencing Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Barzani emphasized the need for international action to secure peace, particularly following the Gaza conflict, stating, “The international community must work to enforce peace, especially following the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, 2023, and the abduction of dozens of Israeli civilians.” He called for immediate implementation of UN Security Council resolutions demanding a ceasefire, unconditional release of hostages, and a two-state solution with a Palestinian state.

Barzani reaffirmed the Kurdistan Region’s commitment to avoiding threats or aggression toward any country, specifically pointing to efforts at building a stronger economy as a foundation for regional peace.

“Our path in Iraq is clear—strengthening democracy and bolstering the economy. Continuous dialogue is essential, and without it, the conditions that allow terrorist groups to flourish will persist,” Barzani concluded.

Leaders Discuss Regional Tensions

In a one-on-one interview, Ammar Al-Hakim, head of the Hikma National Movement, addressed Iran’s attack on Israel, framing it as a calculated move to warn the international community without escalating conflict. Al-Hakim described Iran’s move as showing restraint and further pointed to its unheeded proposal for UN condemnation of Israeli actions. A Russia-backed resolution to this effect was opposed by the United Kingdom, France, and the U.S.

Qasim Al-Araji, Iraqi National Security Advisor, discussed regional alliances during the forum’s first panel discussion. He described the strategic agreement between Baghdad and the Washington as robust and independent of changes in the U.S. administration, further emphasizing Iraq’s strategic role as a “pivotal point of convergence” in the region with relations with both the U.S. and Iran.

“We have good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and our cultural, social, religious and political relations are good, and at the same time we have good relations with America,” he said.

He also noted Iraq’s role in facilitating rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, illustrating Iraq’s capacity to “maintain friendly relations” with multiple significant powers.

In the second panel, which focused on security dynamics and arrangements in Iraq, Rebar Ahmed Khalid, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Minister of Interior, firmly denied the presence of any “terrorist” groups within the borders of the Kurdistan region or its surrounding areas.

“As for the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], Turkey, because of its interests, policies, and the international community, calls them ‘terrorists,’ but in Iraq, this party is not called ‘terrorist,'” Khalid added. Despite the statement, the Iraqi National Security Council did recognize the PKK as a “banned organization,” according to a March 14 statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs following a meeting between Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and Forign Minister Fuad Hussein.

During the third panel, titled “Resurgence of Conflict Across the MENA,” Sanam Vakil, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House in the U.K., added that one effect of Tehran’s strikes on Israel this week was how other powers would now look at the country.

“Too often, we approach Iran as a static actor, and as we saw a few days ago, Iran behaved quite differently, and that helps us change our model.”

Concerns Raised over Iraq’s Economy

The closing panel addressed Iraq’s economy. While leaders praised progress, U.S. Charge d’Affairs David Burger offered a cautious assessment, stating, “There are huge capital projects in which internationals want to invest in Iraq, but the mechanisms are not there; the ministries are not easily equipped to do it.”

“If a company is looking to invest, for example in Iraq’s financial sector, there is not much to invest in,” he added. “Iraqi banks need to interact with the international banking system the way that other banks in the world do.”