ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq has the potential to be the “heart of a new Silk Road,” President Barham Salih said on Thursday, explaining the country aims to start on that route with massive infrastructure projects.
“For millennia, Iraq has been the catalyst, the precursor for regional order or disorder. I daresay that there is now an opportunity to reorient Iraq’s trajectory and propel the country towards prosperity and stability,” Salih said in a keynote speech at the Mediterranean Dialogues in Rome.
The annual forum, hosted by Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), aims to stimulate debate on regional issues.
Salih acknowledged the monumental task ahead of Iraq – restoring basic services, reconstructing war-devastated cities and towns, helping more than 1.8 million displaced Iraqis return home, and “drying up the swamp of corruption.”
“These are no easy objectives to be obtained in a country that has gone through war, conflict, sanctions, and repression for decades,” he said.
But the new government has an ambitious agenda to just that. Salih said they will soon launch a reconstruction agency to attract Iraqi and international investments in infrastructure projects like “deep port facilities in Basra, railway networks, highway networks, airports, industrial cities, dams, irrigation projects in the Nineveh plains, Garmiyan and Erbil, as well as land reclamations in the south.”
He said they hope this will bring employment to Iraq’s large youth population and boost the economy of the Middle East.
“Iraq is an important strategic hub that joins the Arab world with Iran and Turkey, and I will say to Europe too, and connects the economies of the Gulf and Europe. These projects could connect the countries of the region and Iraq could hopefully become the heart of a new Silk Road to the Mediterranean,” Salih explained.
In order for this plan to happen, however, neighbouring countries must help and Iraq “should not be burdened with further tensions and escalations in our neighbourhood,” he said.
“No other country has suffered what Iraq has suffered. Think about it – four decades of a sustained cycle of instability. This has to end. It is time Iraq’s stability and prosperity is turned into a common interest in the neighbourhood.”
Salih just finished a regional tour that saw him visiting Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, bringing a message that Iraq wants to work with its neighbours but will not tolerate interference.
“I do not see why our neighbourhood has to be condemned to the cycle of violence and deepening instability,” he said in Rome.
“We can do it, but we will need help from our neighbours, we need help from our European neighbours for that matter. And it’s time that we focus on a positive agenda beyond decades of turmoil and conflict that have plagued our region.”
Salih had a breakfast meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and was expected to meet Pope Frances while in Rome.
Salih also met with Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte.
“They discussed the developments in the Syrian dossier and the situation in the region, stressing the importance of mitigating tensions in the region and concerted efforts to eliminate terrorism and dry up its sources,” according to a readout from Salih’s office