Iraq’s close trade ties with Syria, from which it imports significant amounts of foodstuffs, pushed the Iraqi government to abstain from an Arab League vote imposing sanctions on Syria, officials say.
The vote on Sunday came after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ignored the League’s calls for an end to a brutal crackdown on protesters which has seen thousands of people killed since March.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said 19 of the League’s 22 members voted in favour of sanctions against Syria, Iraq abstained from the vote, and refused to implement it, while Lebanon “disassociated itself” from the decision.
Iraq also abstained from an earlier vote on suspending Syria from the Arab League.
“Our position is mainly economic. There is a trade exchange between Iraq and Syria, and a joint border,” Iraqi deputy foreign minister Labid Abbawi said.
“This decision will affect the people of Syria more than the regime,” Abbawi said, but it “will have consequences for us as well as Syria.”
“There are about 200,000 Iraqis living and working in Syria, and receiving salaries, and there are many joint interests,” he said.
“We as the Iraqi government are trying to implement decisions that do not harm our people,” he said.
“Trade relations between Syria and Iraq do not allow Iraq to implement the decisions of the Arab League,” Iraq’s representative to the pan-Arab body, Qais al-Azzawi, was quoted as saying in government daily Al-Sabah.
The newspaper also quoted Humam Hamoudi, the chief of the foreign relations committee in parliament, as saying that “Iraq’s stance on Syria is matched with Iraq’s political and economic interests.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had earlier come out against sanctions against Syria.
“It is not possible, in the opinion of Iraq, to impose economic sanctions on Syria,” Zebari told a news conference Saturday in the Iraqi shrine city of Najaf, citing Syria’s commercial ties with Iraq and the large number of Iraqi refugees there.
Trade between Iraq and Syria reached $2 billion last year, and is expected to reach $3 billion for 2011, according to official Iraqi and Syrian figures.
The Syrian Centre for Statistics said that in 2009, 52.5 percent of Syria’s exports went to the Arab world, while 31.4 percent of that went to Iraq.
Iraqi MP Nada al-Jaburi, a member of the foreign relations committee, said that “trade relations between Syria and Iraq will not stop.”
“It is difficult to impose economic sanctions on a neighbouring country,” she said. “Syria is a neighbouring country, and we cannot take a stance similar to the Arab League decision.”
“There are joint interests between the two countries,” Jaburi said.
Asked if external pressure had influenced Iraq’s stance, she said that “the issue was not free of regional pressure, represented by Iran, which is the biggest player in the region.”
But Abbawi said that “our decision is sovereign and independent.”
Luay Faisal, a 35-year-old trader in Al-Rashid trade centre, one of two main fresh produce import hubs in Baghdad, said that “70 percent of the fruits and vegetables coming to the Iraqi market are from Syria.”
Mohammed Jabber, a 40-year-old foodstuffs trader who has worked in the field for over 20 years, said that “Syrian goods are inexpensive compared with other goods.”
“Ending trade relations with Syria will create a big economic crisis because local production is not enough,” Jabber said.
Despite its abstention, Iraq is already beginning to feel the impact of the League vote, an Iraqi trade ministry official said.
“The price of foodstuffs has begun to increase due to the Arab League taking the decision against Syria,” the official said on condition of anonymity, without providing further details.
“Iraq stands independently today against any policy against Syria,” said Ihsan al-Shammari, a professor of political science at Baghdad University.
Shammari noted the significant trade volume between Iraq and Syria, but added that “in any case, Syria’s need for Iraq is greater than Iraq’s need for Syria.”
A Syrian official told AFP on condition of anonymity that “we know how to manage when the going gets rough, because we have been facing sanctions for years.”
“Russia is our political shield while Iraq, Lebanon and Iran are our economic lungs,” the official said.