In Iraq, John Baird works to rebuild diplomatic and economic ties

Baghdad — The Globe and Mail

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird (OLIVIER JEAN For The Globe and Mail)

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is making a visit to troubled Iraq, seeking to re-connect with the country that has a booming economy but is still spotted by sectarian violence.

Mr. Baird, on a 12-day tour of the Middle East, flew into Baghdad Monday morning for the first visit by a Canadian foreign minister in 37 years. His plan to visit the country was not made public as a security precaution.

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His convoy sped through down Baghdad roads lined by palms and armoured vehicles, into the safer green zone for meetings this morning with legislators at the Iraqi parliament, and then into the lush compound – where a miniature pony grazed – of the residence of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

He was guarded by heavy security as reminders of Iraq’s continued dangers reverberated before and during his visit: a series of attacks in Baghdad and in other cities have intensified in recent days. On Monday, as Mr Baird spoke to parliamentarians, insurgents detonated a fuel tank in an attack in Tikrit, killing nine and injuring 17.

Mr. Baird’s visit is part of an effort to seek a diplomatic re-connection with Iraq after ties dwindled over decades of war.

He announced the opening of a permanent Canadian diplomatic office housed at the British embassy and staffed by a chargé d’affaires, Stephanie Duhaime. Although it is not a full embassy, it is an increased presence, as Canada has until now been represented by diplomats in Jordan who fly to Baghdad from time to time for meetings.

Several of the Iraqi politicians that Mr. Baird met asked for Canada to open an embassy to symbolize the country’s advance toward democracy. The head of the parliament’s foreign relations committee, Sheikh Hamman Hamoudi, told Mr. Baird at a round-table meeting with parliamentarians that Canada is not visible in Iraq, unlike the U.S., China, or other countries.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any active presence in Iraq for Canada, although there are many opportunities for Canada,” he said.

Until this year, no Canadian minister had visited Iraq since foreign minister Mark MacGuigan did in 1976, but Immigration Minister Jason Kenney also made a surprise visit to Baghdad in March – and the two back-to-back visits by Canadian ministers are a sign the Harper government has decided to pay more attention to Iraq.

The reasons are both economic and diplomatic.

Iraq has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and Canadian business, especially oil companies, could have enormous potential trade here. But deep corruption and the erratic legal system, in addition to the security risks, have kept many away.

And Iraq is also, in Ottawa’s eyes, and important nation in the regional security issues and sectarian divides of the Middle East.

Mr. al-Maliki’s Shia-led government coalition faces criticisms about its inclusions of Kurds and Sunnis, and is seen by many as heavily influenced by Iran.

But Mr. Baird’s visit symbolizes Ottawa’s belief that despite Iraq’s complex politics, it is not simply Teheran’s puppet, and that there’s promise in greater diplomatic engagement.

Mr. al-Maliki, a Shiite, leads a coalition government with uneasy inclusion of the country’s Kurds and Sunnis – Sunnis have for months been protesting their marginalization in several cities. Mr. Baird stressed the need for pluralism in meetings with parliamentarians and officials said he would make the point with Mr. al-Maliki and other government leaders.

Only last week, visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Iraq to stop Iran from flying weapons to Syria through Iraqi airspace. Mr. al-Maliki’s government has since promised to conduct inspections, but Mr. Baird was expected to ask the Iraqis to clarify whether they will make serious attempts to stop the overflights.

Iraq has also expressed fears about the Syrian opposition ousting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, worrying it could lead to energized Islamist fighters flowing back to Iraq.

In one sense, Mr Baird and the Harper government sympathize: while Ottawa has called for President Assad to step down, Canada has not, like most western countries, recognized the Syrian opposition coalition, because it fears the influence of Islamist extremists in their ranks.

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