Iraqi Kurds make up one of the biggest minority communities in Sweden, fostering a special cross-cultural relationship between the two nations. Through its military commitment to the international coalition to defeat ISIS and its support for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Stockholm has a strong interest in Iraq the Region’s stabilization and future prosperity.
Pontus Melander, Swedish ambassador to Iraq, believes there is great potential to build diplomatic and economic ties between Stockholm and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Speaking to Rudaw during a visit to Erbil in early October, Melander outlined the major challenges ahead for the new government taking shape in Baghdad, the impact of Sweden’s own recent election on diplomatic relations, and how Sweden’s large migrant community influences its foreign policy.
Melander says the top priorities for Iraq are stabilization, economic reform, and reconstruction. He also warned the international community must remain vigilant, as complacency now could allow ISIS to return.
My first question is about Sweden’s commitments to the UNDP’s Funding Facility for Stabilization. What specific projects in Sweden supporting here in Iraq and in the Kurdistan Region?
Pontus Melander: UNDP I would say is one of the more important projects we have also implemented here in Iraq and the Kurdish Region when it comes to stabilization efforts now after the and during the fight against Daesh (ISIS). We are one of the core funders of UNDP. That means that we have actually give money directly into UNDP and they decide themselves where to put this because they know very well themselves. And then we also put a lot of humanitarian support into UNDP as such especially for the efforts here in Iraq. And then we do help out here and there where we find it more important otherwise. Yesterday I had a conversation with a colleague who was in Mosul and I saw the devastation there and now we have some Swedish projects and those of course are extremely important right now since we all know how the situation in Mosul is perhaps one of the most dire ones. And I’ve been there myself. I have to say it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. And I think also it affects the Kurdish Region very much due to the IDP camps you have here.
I want to know if the stabilization fund is designed because of Europe’s concerns about migration and Sweden’s own concerns about migration. By stabilizing the region here, fewer people will be choosing to leave, they will be staying put to participate in reconstruction. Is that really the motive for supporting these projects?
I would say that’s bending the truth a bit. I think absolutely we see the humanitarian needs here in Iraq for Iraqi people and that the Iraqi people they have to have a stable and sound environment. We also know of course that we still have just below two million people in IDP camps. And yes it’s so much better than in was just a year ago – a good year ago when I arrived I think the figure was five million people. So I think what the UNDP is doing is actually for Iraq and not to dampen immigration flows in Europe. I think that has perhaps been an effect of it, but I don’t think that’s the reason behind it, not for Sweden anyway.
What, in your experience – you say you’ve been visiting Mosul and seeing the devastation there, the reconstruction that’s required – what do you believe are the most pressing needs here? Obviously, the question of persecuted minorities in northern Iraq is a big issue. What would Sweden like to see done to support these peoples?
You’re right. Mosul in itself I think is a major challenge for Iraq and the international community because seeing the devastation there, all the unexploded ordnance that’s still left there. We know that the ruble will take a long time to remove and that is of course necessary in order to rebuild the city. But you’re also touching upon another very important issue – that is the situation for minorities in Iraq and especially I think the province of Nineveh – yes we know Yezidis, Christians, Turkmens and other minorities – and I really want to underline it goes for all minorities, not just the Christian ones, that we want to support and help them to get back to their community. And I think the situations especially for Yezidis has of course been highlighted by the recent Nobel Prize to Nadia Murad and I think that also highlights for the international community, not only for us here in Iraq, living and working in Iraq, but also for others to see what happened to the Yezidis for example in the Nineveh province.
Sweden has not only been committed to this region through aid of course. It’s made military input to the coalition to defeat ISIS – committing 70 personnel – not a huge number – but they have been dedicated to training efforts of local forces. Could you tell us about that?
I think we started with a troop contribution within the auspices of the coalition three years ago in 2015 and we have been up here in Kurdistan since, in Erbil, and the KTCC [Kurdistan Training Coordination Center]. We are of course always developing this and I’m not really privy to the exact knowledge what will happen next. But we have around 70 soldiers, we have ten policemen in Baghdad. But things develop all the time. We will be present wherever the coalition thinks there’s most of a need. So there will be changes in the future with our two troop contributions. But what I can say is that we are committed to stay here in Iraq for the foreseeable future. And one of the things that is very comforting for an ambassador in Iraq to know is that we had elections in Sweden almost a month ago and I would say irrespective of who will be in government we will be committed in our support to Iraq – both when it comes to our troop contribution and also development cooperation. We are eager, the government I should say, whoever is prime minister, when we send troops abroad we want to have the support also of the opposition because this is not a domestic political issue, this is something that is too serious for that I would say.
The United States is talking about drawing down its presence here. I mean with only 70 members of the armed forces, a troop drawdown at some stage won’t necessarily make a huge impact, but will that commitment do you think in the near future be drawn down given that the security situation in Iraq isn’t necessarily stabilizing as was initially thought last December when former prime minister Haider al-Abadi said ISIS has been defeated here in Iraq, but we are already seeing sleeper cells and so on in Kirkuk, Dyala, Saladin coming back. This is a concern. Do you think the coalition and your troops will be here for much longer?
I cannot speak for the coalition of course because that’s not my responsibility, but I can tell you about Sweden and I think we are committed to staying as long as the coalition will stay. We are not a part of NATO. NATO is also a partner here in stabilization efforts in Iraq. We have also offered to be a part of that as a troop partner to NATO. So my answer is we are of course dependent on what the coalition will do in future. There are no plans for Sweden to do any major changes in the number of troop contribution. Yes, 70 people is not a lot, but we are not the largest country also. I’m not really in the situation to know if it will be 60 or 50 in the next phase. There is a decision each and every year by the Swedish parliament about our contribution, and such a decision will be taken this autumn for 2019.
Another concern for a number of Western countries is foreign fighters. People from their countries, citizens of their countries who travelled here to join Islamic State either in Iraq or Syria. And the concern now is those who are returning, but also those who are now being held in detention by Kurdish forces in northern Syria or in Iraq. What is being done by your justice system to address this? You’ve been called upon to take back – like all countries who have got fighters in the region – been called upon to take back these and to try them in their own courts. What’s being done by Sweden on this?
According to information I have we have no Swedish foreign fighters here in Iraq being captured – we could well have that such situation. My understanding is also that I think the Iraqi legal system will try those people that have been fighting in Iraq. We are aware of course of the fact that during the years there have been Swedish foreign fighters also here both in Syria and Iraq, especially when the border was more porous. So to my recollection we don’t have any demand for any especial Swedish fighter right now, no.
You became ambassador at a difficult time for this region. The October events when Iraqi forces, Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitas took over Kirkuk and several of the disputed territories. These are disputed under the Iraqi constitution. A turbulent time which the Kurdistan Region has been reeling from since. Erbil-Baghdad relations have gradually improved since then – largely part of the election and government formation talks has mended a number of fences. What do you think is the future for Erbil-Baghdad relations and do you think these disputed issues can be handled, and what involvement can countries like your own and the international community play in that?
I think it’s a very important issue and I do agree with you. I arrived here in September last year – that became one of the most important issues last fall together with of course the fight against Daesh. And we tried, as a part of the international community, to be helpful in order to find a resolution on this – we think and rely quite heavily on the United Nations here. I think UNAMI has big role to play, it has offered its good offices in order to mend the fences between Erbil and Baghdad. I think they have done so as much as they could. I think also Erbil and Baghdad in themself have found now a tone in their communication which is much more healthy. So I’m fairly optimistic that this kind of relationship building can continue and that can also foster the economic development of the Kurdistan Region. And I am of course aware of the constitution, which is of course the backbone for the relation between Erbil and Baghdad and also the article within the constitution that talks about the disputed territories, and we are all hopeful and we will press for that, this is something that will be discussed between Baghdad and Erbil in future. We all know it has taken a lot of time and it has been some tough years for Iraq and hopefully if we see brighter times there will be times also to discuss those issues.
I will return later to the new government that’s coming together in Baghdad, I’d love to hear your views on that. I want to talk about the diaspora – the Kurdish diaspora living in Sweden. It’s a substantial community. It came in several waves from several turbulent times that have affected this region and it is now one of the biggest minority communities in Sweden. How has that influenced Swedish policy in this part of the world – having such a big community at home?
It’s very true. The Kurdish minority is well above 100,000 people in Sweden, so it is substantial and it’s interesting to note that it is very well integrated. We had a parliament election, as I mentioned, in September. I think six of our new MPs have Kurdish origin, so they are very well integrated into the Swedish community. You were referring to the immigration before. We also have quite a large Iraqi community. Some of them are Kurdish – it’s hard to make any distinction between Kurdish and Iraqis in our system – we don’t make that kind of system of registration so to say so you can tell whether you’re Iraqi or Kurdish. That means of course that the diaspora in themselves make their views known to the Swedish politicians. But it’s based on Swedish values – how we see the world. And I think how we see the world is that yes, the Kurdish Region, the autonomous Kurdish Region, has a special role under the Iraqi constitution, and if that is going to be changed, it’s actually up to Iraq to decide, it has to be a decision, an amicable decision, between Baghdad and Erbil to solve that issue.
Sweden doesn’t have a consulate here in Erbil, but do you see perhaps you will be building more relations? Is there a belief that you will be building more relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government? Do you see a future with that relationship, dealing with them independently?
Absolutely. I do see a future between Sweden and the Kurdistan Region. And no, we don’t have a consulate, we don’t have a separate diplomatic building here as a consulate, but we have a section office that’s a part of the embassy. My deputy at the embassy, she is dedicated to be in Erbil as often as she can, at least once a month. And of course we try to be here as often as we can. I don’t see the issue of a consulate as such as a big difference. I mean, we are a fairly small country. We don’t have – the funds are limited so to say. We don’t have also the tradition of a consulate even if we would want to do so. But absolutely, I think the people-to-people contacts especially between the Kurdish Region and Sweden they are immense. I mean, before 2014 when the war started against Daesh, there were huge travels between Sweden and Kurdistan, especially in the summertime when people went on vacation, there’s direct flights from Stockholm to Erbil. I’m hopeful that can come back so we can continue with this people-to-people contact.
Do you think as the economy starts to recover in Iraq more generally but also in the Region, after a budgetary crisis, financial crisis, the cost of war, the disputed territories issue, the recovering of that economy, do you think Swedish business will be interested?
I hope that. I mean, I have to admit, it is a bit of a challenge when I speak to our businessmen back home to get them to get back to Iraq – security wise, that is one thing. But also I think the lack of economic reform in Iraq as such has also hampered their willingness to be here. They’re businessmen – they don’t go to Iraq because I tell them to. They go there in order to make money and to find their economic partner and so on. And I think it’s very important that Iraq will have an economically sound system where you have clear rules, you have accountability for people doing business, and also you have to somehow operate without vested interests that we see right now. And I’m optimistic that the new government in Baghdad, of course they are well aware of this, the priority of that issue in order to attract capital and in order to attract foreign investment.
So it’s a question of good governance and fighting corruption?
I want to turn to Sweden’s election in September. The fallout is still going on right now. But a lot of western press seemed, perhaps to flare it up more than it was the case, but the rise of far right voices – this is a phenomenon happening not just in Europe but across the world, in western democracies, far right views, anti-immigration, anti-migration voices having an influence. Do you think this will alter the relationship not just with the diaspora at home but also policy abroad? Will it influence that, this changing of the tone?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. The elections actually meant that – the party in Sweden that is regarded to be more negative to migration and they actually gained – but they didn’t gain a lot – they gained four percent, four-and-a-half in fact – it was not a major change in the Swedish system. But what they did encompass was a kind of change of the dialogue in Sweden. The election was a lot about those issues – immigration and I would say more integration of our immigrants. The immigration flows in 2015 and 16 were of course immense, we all know that Germany and Sweden took the biggest brunt of that, and that has changed now, I think it’s at a much lower level and I think we are now in a position to handle that situation. Coming back to your question – will that change our relations with Kurdistan or Iraq? I would say no. I mean, I think we have a very good relationship, I think that will develop and I think also the diaspora has grown due to that and I think that will also help to get the knowledge to both sides so to say.
My final question is to do with new government coming together in Baghdad. What role do you want to play in that? What advice would you give to that new administration? And also, in a turbulent time for this region, with new sanctions on Iran and Iraq’s relationship balancing between its US allies and Iranian allies, what do you think are the challenges ahead for that government and what would you like to see come from it?
First of all I want to underline that it’s the choice of Iraq and the Iraqi people to nominate its own government and elect its own government. I think that should be made very clear – it’s an Iraqi issue. We all know I think what should be the priorities so to say for the next government. I think they know it themselves. What we see of course first of all we talked about economic reform, I think that is something that is needed in order to attract foreign capital. We’ve all seen the social unrest in the south of the country in Basra and the situation, that’s also a major challenge. In Mosul, we mentioned in the stabilization and reconstruction. I would also like to say that we should not be complacent when it comes to Daesh – we have to be very vigilant here – and that of course goes for the international community, not only the coalition but the community as such. Then of course it is a complication for Iraq with the new situation between Iran and the United Nations. As you know, Sweden is a part of the EU. EU is part of the nuclear agreement and the EU wants to keep the nuclear agreement going, and that also goes for Sweden of course that we as a part of the EU, we are of course also affected by this situation. I don’t have the knowledge for how it will affect Iraq in detail, but I do understand it will affect Iraq quite heavily since Iran is its biggest trading partner and it could be difficult for Iraq to navigate here.