Iraq's geostrategic importance for the European Union is mirrored by the growing interests of single European states. This is particularly true for France and Italy, who are indeed at the forefront of the European strategic relationship with Baghdad.
Paris' and Rome's engagement in the country revolves around several dimensions, first and foremost regarding security. On the military level, both EU member states are historically and traditionally involved in the fight against terrorism in the region and the global growth of Islamic extremist movements. In Iraq, this commitment includes troops and air assistance of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), an essential support for Baghdad in curbing the remaining cells of the so-called Caliphate.
For almost twenty years, Italy has been present on Iraqi territory, in line with the intermittent orientation of its major allies. In recent times, Rome’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has gone hand in hand with a progressive consolidation of its military role in Iraq. From May 2022, Italy will lead the NATO Mission in Iraq (NMI). Launched in 2018 at Baghdad’s request, NMI is a non-combat, advisory, training and capacity-building operation designed to help strengthen Iraqi security institutions – namely the Iraq's Defense Ministry – with security sector reform (SSR), as well as training and supporting local forces in their efforts to fight terrorism.
Following requests from the Iraqi government, this year, the NATO presence in Iraq is expected to increase its personnel by up to 4,000 troops. However, instead of being a new "surge", this deployment would be conducted in full respect of Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity and subjected to Baghdad’s authority. If adequately managed, this initiative could potentially produce good opportunities for quiet and sustainable security cooperation to restore the Iraqi institutions and state's sovereignty. At the same time, it could even improve multi-national security relations beyond the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) and more widely distribute the burden of support among US allies.
More broadly, the expansion of NATO's mission to Iraq — already discussed in June during the ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition against Daesh co-chaired by Italy and the United States — could also be seen as a response to the US desire for greater involvement of its allies in active missions in the Middle East. This approach, in turn, reflects a moment where Washington is substantially reducing its military presence in the area due to the growing priority attributed to the Indo-Pacific. In Iraq, the United States still deploy 2,500 troops, whose combat elements have to be entirely evacuated by the end of the year.
In the renewed NATO framework in Iraq, the Italian forces will represent the largest share, with 1,180 units deployed as part of the Operation Prima Parthica – Italian contribution to the international Inherent Resolve mission – and NMI. By taking the reins of the fourth multilateral mission in the broader Mediterranean (together with the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon, NATO’s KFOR in Kosovo and EUNAVFOR MED IRINI in Central Mediterranean), Italy is re-affirming its increasing role within the Alliance and its firm commitment to Baghdad.
Against this backdrop, France plays a prominent role in counter-terrorism operations in Iraq, both in air support and personnel. Bilaterally, France maintains with Iraq both lethal air support and nonlethal military training programs in the context of the IS fight, with approximately 600 troops, 11 jet fighters and one vessel being part of the Paris' contribution towards the US-led coalition (operation Chammal). Moreover, in late August, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated France's commitment to the fight against the Caliphate's sleeping cells in Iraq during his attendance at the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership. This visit, the second in a year and the sole as a non-regional participant, clearly demonstrates the significance of Iraq to France's strategic interests in the region.
Iraq also presents promising economic opportunities for both EU countries. Considering its oil reserves (among the biggest in the world) and its role in the OPEC cartel, Iraq will continue to be of the utmost geostrategic importance for the global economy. Accounting for over 17% of Italy’s national demand, Iraq was among the country's largest crude oil suppliers in 2020, second only to Azerbaijan. On the French front, Macron's latest visit to Iraq was timed with the French company Total signing a USD27 billion contract to extract oil and gas from several wells in Basra.
In addition, both France and Italy hope to secure contracts to reconstruct Iraq's central areas destroyed in the war against IS. Nowadays, Italian companies are deeply involved in providing technical assistance to enhance Iraqi national hydraulic infrastructure and dam system (especially in Mosul). Recently, Italy also donated Iraq 100,000 vaccine doses via the Covax vaccine-sharing facility. A modest donation, which nonetheless symbolises the Italian solidarity in contributing to Baghdad's efforts to enhance the national vaccination campaign against Covid-19 (that has interested only around 10 per cent of the Iraqi population). At the same time, the French firm Alstom has reportedly signed a USD1.5 billion deal with Iraqi authorities to design and construct a monorail metro system in Baghdad.
Nonetheless, increasing the European footprint in Iraq could also represent a formidable challenge due to the multiple critical issues characterising the Iraqi context. Although temporarily appeased by convincing Washington to decrease its involvement in Iraq, Iranian-aligned parties in the Shiite block (and their affiliated militant groups) still represent the most significant challenge to a Western presence in Iraq, whether American or not. Thus, this element is the first to consider when examining the mid-to-long-term implications of a bolstered presence of Western troops on Iraqi soil. Given their traditional non-interference in Iraqi domestic issues, Italian and French forces can help maintain strong international support to Iraq while decreasing the risk of escalation with Iran-backed militias.
Nonetheless, as the country has witnessed new elections, it is reasonable to foresee that the same obstacle to keep Iranian-backed militias at bay will inevitably affect any incoming Prime Minister, given the necessity to secure a majority within the Council of Representatives (where the Iran-aligned groups and affiliated political forces hold a significant share). In this context, any intention to embrace much-needed security sector reforms and keep a military presence in Iraq (even if in full respect of Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity under the NATO structure) should consider the necessity to avoid sparking tensions between the government and paramilitaries and adding instability to an already unpredictable environment. In this sense, caution will be critical in the months to come.
At the same time, both France and Italy should adjust their plans for expanding their mission and influence in Iraq in line with developments already in progress in the region. For months now, Iraq has enjoyed positive relationships with its surrounding neighbours (with which both France and Italy enjoy reasonably warm economic and political relations), above all the venue for Saudi-Iranian negotiations. At the same time, the Baghdad Conference presented a significant opportunity to create a platform for regional dialogue and understanding. Nonetheless, an enhanced Italian and French presence in the area could progressively affect the relationship with neighbouring countries, especially Turkey (who has repeatedly criticised the Atlantic Alliance for its collaboration with the Iraqi Kurds). For Ankara, European enhanced commitment could indeed counterbalance its presence in Iraq, especially in the North. Macron's recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan (an area that Ankara considers essential for its national interest and significant influence) perfectly exemplifies this, raising eyebrows in Turkey about whether the Iraqi Kurdish region could turn into a new place of rivalry with Paris. Overall, concerted Italian-French action in Iraq would represent the ideal approach to help maintain solid international support to Baghdad while decreasing the risk of further instability at the regional level and avoiding jeopardising Iraq's efforts to address its long-standing challenges.