A city break in Baghdad

A weekend in the Green Zone as part of the Labour Friends of Iraq’s ongoing dialogue with the Islamic Dawa Party of Prime Minister Al Maliki was gruelling but politically worthwhile.

Talking with the PM and his party colleagues, his bipartisan advisory group, the Sunni Defence Minister, MPs from various parties in the Parliament and others reinforced several themes.

First, the massive burdens of Iraq’s history and geography. The scale of the physical and psychological destruction wreaked by Saddam should never be forgotten. And Iraq is surrounded by countries which are suspicious (some with good historical reasons) and hostile for ethnic, economic and political reasons with some actively fomenting terrorism. Iraq’s neighbours prefer Iraq as a consumer rather than producer and competitor. A successful Iraq would be positive for the wider Middle East, which is why reactionary forces there want it to fail.

However, the Prime Minister’s relatively successful action against the Mehdi Army in Basra which halted the talibanisation of the city and retrieved control over the port and trade routes from them has made him popular with Sunnis and Shias and may allow him to be a popular and unifying force.

Time will tell if Iraqi forces are able to establish their writ in Mosul near the Syrian border and in Sadr City in Baghdad from where the rockets and mortars aimed at the Green Zone originate.

I have visited Iraqi Kurdistan for two week-long visits and now Baghdad for a long weekend. I have met very many politicians and others who have a deep affection for Britain, which I believe is genuine. English is widely spoken and taught at schools from a very early age.

In our meeting with MPs, I raised the issue of whether Iraq would one day like to join the Commonwealth. The answer was positive. It will be a question of priorities and timing. But Iraqi political leaders are very eager to engage with the outside world and overcome decades of isolation. You read it here first.

On a less positive note, the trade unions, which have come from near complete annihilation under Saddam to being a considerable non-sectarian force, still face needless restrictions on their work. We strongly pushed the PM and the Dawa Party to lift such restrictions and have been promised progress on this in the near future.