Iraq: a pivot of Italian foreign and defence policy in the Middle Eastby Federico Deiana
Defence Minister Crosetto’s visit to Iraq was an opportunity to reaffirm Italy’s political-military commitment and to discuss new forms of economic cooperation
On 2 and 3 May, Italy’s Minister of Defence Guido Crosetto paid an official visit to Iraq, where he met with the country’s top institutional leaders, the main authorities of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan and Italian military personnel engaged in NATO Mission Iraq (NMI) and in the “Prima Parthica” operation. Aimed at intensifying the already solid bilateral relations with Iraq, Crosetto’s trip was an opportunity to underline Italy’s political and military commitment in the region and explore new forms of economic and commercial cooperation with the country.
This was the second high-level visit of a member of the Italian government in the last few months, as Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni had already travelled to Iraq and Kurdistan before Christmas. Like the Prime Minister, during his visit Minister Crosetto held talks with the President of the Republic, Abdul Latif Rashid, and with Prime Minister Mohammed Shi’a Al-Sudani, during which both parties expressed their willingness to further consolidate security, intelligence, environment, infrastructure and industrial cooperation. With Iraqi Defence Minister Thabet Muhammad Saeed Al-Abbasi, Minister Crosetto discussed the two countries’ shared commitment against terrorism and the strengthening of cooperation between their armed forces. Minister Al-Abbasi also thanked his counterpart for the role Italy played in ensuring the stability and security of the country.
Iraq currently represents Italy’s main foreign theatre of military operations, - in terms of soldiers deployed - after Lebanon, and a traditionally strategic area for Italian foreign and defence policy. In addition to EUAM Iraq, the EU mission aimed at providing advice at a strategic level to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, Italy also participates in NMI - which provides training, advice and assistance to the Iraqi armed forces and has been led by Italy since May 2022 - and Operation “Prima Parthica” – which falls within the framework of “Operation Inherent Resolve”, a US-led multinational coalition created to counter the terrorist threat and the possible resurgence of Daesh spanning Central and Southern Iraq, the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan and Kuwait. In this regard, during his visit, Minister Crosetto – accompanied by the Italian Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone – met with the NMI commander, General Giovanni Maria Iannucci, the commander of the Erbil base, Colonel Stefano Salvadori, and the soldiers of the Italian contingent, which represent a concrete example of Italy’s historic commitment to the protection and security of the Iraqi people.
During the First Gulf War in 1990, Rome made its bases available to the US-led international coalition and, subsequently, it deployed the Air Force’s Tornados and several naval assets in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf (operations Locusta and Golfo 2). After the end of hostilities, in 1991, Italy also took part in the UN observation mission in Iraq and Kuwait (UNIKOM), which ended in 2003.
The Italian Minister of Defence’s visit comes about a month after the 20th anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began on 20 March 2003 as part of the international fight against terrorism, with the aim of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime. Italy participated in the military efforts with operation Antica Babilonia, which ended in 2006, followed by the NATO Training Mission Iraq (NTM-I) that ended in 2011.
Minister Crosetto cited the heavy human toll that Italy has paid over the years in Iraq as concrete evidence of Italy’s commitment. At the Italian embassy in Baghdad he paid homage, in particular, to the soldiers killed in the Nassiriyah terrorist attack on 12 November 2003, stating that “Defence is a big family in which the memory of its fallen soldiers perpetuates their heroism and sense of duty.”
The official visit then continued to the Autonomous Region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where Minister Crosetto talked with President Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, President Emeritus Masoud Barzani and Minister of the Interior Rebar Ahmed Khalid. President Barzani had already met the Minister of Defence in Rome on 13 April, on the sidelines of talks with Prime Minister Meloni and Foreign Minister Tajani. In Kurdistan, Crosetto reassured his counteerparts that Italy would continue its military commitment as well as the promotion of economic, industrial and energy cooperation. The idea of setting up a forum on trade and industry was also proposed in order to strengthen the link between Italy and Iraqi Kurdistan, but also to counter the terrorist threat: “Security is key for improving economic conditions in the region and Kurdistan is an example of how stability is an achievable goal,” Cosetto said.
Located at the heart of the Near East, halfway between the Levant and the Persian Gulf, Iraq and the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan have always played a crucial role in the region. In a period of great vitality and changes in regional balances, characterized by the strategic reorientation of the United States, the new role of China in regional dynamics, the growing protagonism of the Gulf monarchies and the new diplomatic activism of Syria and Iran, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan acquire even greater importance for Rome. The visit of Defence Minister Crosetto was, therefore, intended to reaffirm the relevance of the Middle East for Italy, as well as its military commitment to safeguarding the region’s security, especially from the ever-present threat of terrorism. Iraq, which for about a year - between 2021 and 2022 - experienced an internal political stalemate marked by violent clashes and strong foreign interference, has represented a fundamental pivot of Italian and European foreign and defence policy and this will continue to be the case in the future.