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Iraqi demonstrators sing during anti-government protests in Baghdad on Jan. 10, 2020. As U.S.-Iran tensions flare, Iraq is caught in the middle.

Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times News Service

Iraq’s ambassador to Canada says his country does not want to be a “playground” for the tensions between the U.S. and Iran after an American drone strike killed a senior Iranian military commander and Iraqi militia leader last week.

Iran struck back against the U.S. attack that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, firing missiles on two American air bases in Iraq on Wednesday. Hours after the retaliatory missile attacks, a plane carrying at least 57 Canadians crashed near Tehran; Canada has since received intelligence indicating that an Iranian missile mistakenly shot down the Ukraine International Airlines flight, killing all 176 people on board.

In an exclusive interview, Wadee Batti Hanna Albatti, Iraq’s ambassador to Canada, said his government is angry that it has become a “playground” for a proxy war it doesn’t want to be involved in. He warned about the “bitter” consequences of escalating tensions.

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“This gives us a lesson to be careful with our political games," Mr. Albatti told The Globe and Mail. "Maybe during these games, we are going to gain something politically but … the loss morally is very huge, especially when the price is the lives of the innocent people. They don’t have anything in the conflict, they are not part of the conflict.”

Mr. Albatti said Iraq does not want to be forced to “choose between the United States and Iran.” He said both countries are important allies, crediting the U.S.'s long-time involvement in Iraq while recognizing his government’s close “historical, cultural, religious and economic relations” with its Iranian neighbour.

“What is the other option if we are not going to have good relations with Iran?" Mr. Albatti said. “We want to live in peace and to live in good relation with all our neighbours.”

The Iraq government came under loud criticism late last year, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets of Baghdad over accusations of government corruption and opposition to Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs.

Mr. Albatti was hesitant to criticize Gen. Soleimani, the powerful Iranian general responsible for spreading the Islamic Republic’s influence across the Middle East, and Mr. Muhandis, Gen. Soleimani’s top ally in Iraq.

"We can’t deny that General Soleimani or Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis fought ISIS [the Islamic State] for three, four years and they were ready to sacrifice their lives in order to defeat ISIS. So what happened [the attack on Gen. Soleimani and Mr. Muhandis] … it was like death penalty.”

The fight against the Islamic State is personal for Mr. Albatti, whose family was forced to flee their Christian village in Iraq when the terror group invaded.

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Mr. Albatti said Iraq is grateful for Canada’s support, including its participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission that is training Iraqi security forces to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State. Earlier this week, Canada said it was temporarily moving some soldiers out of Iraq “to ensure their safety and security” after the suspension of the NATO mission. Mr. Albatti said the Iraqi government will work with NATO to decide if the mission can resume.

Mr. Albatti said Canada-Iraq relations are strong, adding that his government would like to see Canada on the United Nations Security Council. Canada is currently in the running for one of 10 rotating, non-permanent seats on the UN’s most powerful branch in 2021-22. The election will be held in June.

“We would like to see Canada as member of Security Council to play positive role in the international community.”

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