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Visiting Iraq, Germany's Baerbock pushes for stability

March 12, 2023

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock used her recent trip to Iraq to call for greater international support for Baghdad and the region. Without it, she said, the country risks becoming a pawn in geopolitical tensions.

Annalena Baerbock stands next to a display wall featuring rows of images of Yazidi victims
With her visit to the Sinjar district, Baerbock aimed to shed light on the continued plight of victims of IS ruleImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

As German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived at the Qadiya refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq this week, a group of teenage girls busied themselves at a table with paint and paper. 

On a board next to them were drawings they had created during art therapy sessions. The pictures detailed memories of their time under "Islamic State" (IS) rule: women chained together, dressed head to toe in black garments, bloodied bodies sprawled on the ground. 

Two rows of 10 paintings by children displayed on a white background
Women and girls now living in Qadiya refugee camp have created drawings detailing memories of their time under 'Islamic State'Image: Giulia Saudelli/DW

More than 12,000 people live at the camp, situated just 19 kilometers (12 miles) from the border with Turkey, almost all of them part of the Yazidi minority who were forced to flee their homes in Iraq's Sinjar region after IS took hold in 2014.

Under IS rule, thousands were killed and abducted. Many women, in particular Yazidi women, were enslaved, raped and forced to bear the children of IS fighters.

As Germany's first-ever female foreign minister visited the camp, Baerbock was able to see first-hand projects financed in part with German aid aimed at helping women and children work through grief and trauma. 

This stop set the tone for the rest of her four-day trip through Iraq. One the one hand, Baerbock's attention was centered on big geopolitical and security issues, where Iraq could potentially play a central role; on the other, an attempt not to forget Iraqi women, like the Yazidi, who were some of the main victims of militant terrorism and who are still waiting for justice to be served.

Baerbock: Iraq could be a model of stability

Iran, Iraq's neighbor to the east, featured prominently as Baerbock met with members of the Iraqi government in the capital, Baghdad, nearly 20 years after the beginning of the US-led invasion that kicked off two decades of bloodshed within the country. 

New Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is desperate to show the world his government will not take orders from Tehran — be it from Iraq's Shiite political parties, in association with their militias, or economically. 

Iraq, however, remains the biggest importer of Iranian goods, with Baghdad reliant on Tehran for its gas and electricity supply. Iran's influence in the oil-rich country remains strong.

Last year, Tehran fired missiles at Kurdish groups in northern Iraq, who it blames for anti-government protests which have gripped the country for months.

A girl in the Qadiya refugee camp stands next to an oil drum being used as a table, sorting cut flowers, next to a rusty bed frame
More than 12,000 people live at the Qadiya refugee camp Image: Giulia Saudelli/DW

Speaking alongside Fuad Hussein, her Iraqi counterpart, Baerbock criticized Iran's disrespect for Iraqi sovereignty.

The Iranian regime "is apparently prepared to jeopardize lives and stability in the region [in order] to maintain power," said Baerbock. "This is completely unacceptable and dangerous for the region as a whole." 

Baerbock believes if Iraq is successful in maintaining a stable environment, without undue influence from external actors like Iran, or Turkey, it can provide a model of stability for the entire region.

Berlin remains in good standing with Baghdad. Germany did not participate in the 2003 invasion called by then-US President George W. Bush, who claimed the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein illegally possessed weapons of mass destruction. No weapons were ever found. And 20 years on, Germany's army, the Bundeswehr, is now training Kurdish security forces in Irbil to fight remaining IS sleeper cells. 

International community must bring IS 'to justice' 

With her visit to the Qadiya refugee camp, along with a high-level security visit to the Sinjar district — formerly one of the most highly-populated Yazidi areas and the scene of some of IS' most heinous crimes — Baerbock also aimed to shed light on the continued plight of victims of IS rule.

Yazidis in Germany: Late hope for justice?

After speaking with the women and girls at the Qadiya camp who survived IS, Baerbock said the world had failed to prevent the militant group from committing genocide against the Yazidis. She added that the international community "has an even greater responsibility to bring these criminals to justice."

"Yes, this is a painstaking process, but if there is no justice, then there is no chance of healing, then there is no chance of reconciliation, and then there is no chance of a future," she said. 

In January, Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, officially recognized the massacre of Yazidis by "Islamic State" as genocide. Representatives of the Iraqi and Kurdistan governments, along with the Yazidi community, praised this move during the foreign minister's trip this week. 

In a further step, Baerbock said she was committed to bringing the perpetrators to justice — be it within the Iraqi judicial system or abroad. Germany, home to what is believed to be the world's largest Yazidi diaspora of about 150,000 people, is one of few countries to have taken legal action against members of IS. 

In November 2021, a German court convicted an Iraqi jihadi of genocide against the Yazidi, a first in the world. In January, a German woman went on trial in Koblenz, accused of aiding and abetting war crimes and genocide with the IS in Syria by "enslaving" a Yazidi woman.

Iraq's marshes are drying up

Climate change an existential threat in Iraq 

According to the United Nations, Iraq is the fifth country in the world most affected by climate change — with desertification, loss of precipitation and rising temperatures the biggest concerns.

However, Iraq is also one of the world's largest oil producers. Its economy is almost fully dependent on oil and gas production, making it a large contributor to climate change. 

Baerbock, who represents the environmentalist Green Party, has made a point as foreign minister to also focus her attention on fighting climate change. And this trip was no different.

As she visited residents living along the reed and cattail-lined canals of the marshes of southern Iraq, whose livelihoods are under threat because of dropping water levels, Baerbock reiterated how the consequences of climate change can also increase risks to security.

"The climate crisis is exacerbating existing conflicts," said Baerbock. "It is not only one of the greatest environmental crises, one of the greatest crises for people's livelihoods, but it is also the greatest threat to regional tension, to global security." 

Jessie Wingard contributed to this report.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler