Iraqi Ambassador Abdulrahman Hamid Al-Hussaini spends much of a half-hour conversation smiling. It’s the kind of smile that lights up his whole face, turning his eyes into two crescents.
Reflecting on his five years in Canada before he returns to his foreign ministry's headquarters in Baghdad on Nov. 19, he has some reason to be happy. He’s helped boost ties between Iraq and Canada, including a burst of ministerial visits after a 30-plus-year drought, and even a quick trip by Canada’s prime minister.
Canada announced the opening of a diplomatic mission in Baghdad in 2013, a satellite office of Canada’s embassy in Jordan, headed by a chargé d’affaires. The next year it announced the opening of a trade office in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region. Canada also added Iraq to a list of development partner countries to which it funnels country-to-country aid.
But Mr. Al-Hussaini’s smile fades when he shows a reporter a decorative plate displaying a Babylonian king and other images of his homeland’s great history.
That’s because one image shows a statue of a winged beast with a human head found in the ancient city of Nimrud. Founded in the 13th century BC about 30 kilometres southeast of Mosul, the city was destroyed by Islamic State militants earlier this year.
The extremist group also known as ISIS and ISIL took control of the Mosul area and other parts of northwestern Iraq and Syria in 2014, leading a US-led coalition including Canada to launch a bombing campaign against it.
Mr. Al-Hussaini said he’s grateful for Canada’s support.
Under the recently defeated Conservative government of Stephen Harper, Canada sent six CF-18 fighter jets to bomb ISIS targets and three support aircraft as well as about 69 soldiers to train Iraqi security forces. One Canadian soldier was killed in March in what the Canadian Armed Forces have described as a “friendly fire” incident by Kurdish fighters.
Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government has pledged to stop the Canadian bombing mission, and instead focus on the training aspect and on providing more humanitarian support.
Calling it a “sovereign decision,” Mr. Al-Hussaini indicated he has no concerns with Canada leaving the bombing mission. He’s happy the Liberal government is continuing to help through training and humanitarian aid.
The international mission has brought to the fore long-time tension in Iraq between the central government in Baghdad and the northern Kurdistan region, which has sought to break away from the rest of the country.
The Ottawa Citizen reported this week that Iraqi officials had held for four days a Canadian Hercules aircraft transporting supplies into Kurdistan. It was denied movement from Baghdad to Erbil “due to an issue with customs documentation with respect to its cargo,” a Department of National Defence spokesperson told the Citizen, though it was eventually allowed to fly back to Kuwait without any cargo confiscated.
The head of the Iraqi Parliament’s Security and Defence Commission told local media, according to the Citizen, that both a Canadian and Swedish aircraft were seized and crews were attempting to move weapons into the Kurdistan region without informing the Iraqi government.
Some Iraqis are worried the Kurds will use the international support and arms, meant for the ISIS fight, to eventually break loose from Iraq.
Mr. Al-Hussaini in a Nov. 10 interview sought to downplay the incident, noting that all such international military transport flights must stop first in Baghdad to have their flight manifests checked against the cargo on board by the federal government before heading to the Kurdistan region.
The hold-up in this case, he said, was “just a logistics issue” surrounding a discrepancy with the flight manifest, but he said it was cleared up quickly. He wasn't able to give more details about the manifest.
Though Canadians have been advising Kurdish peshmerga fighters, the ambassador didn’t indicate he had any problems with Canada’s relationship with Kurdistan regional forces.
“Now, any equipment, it is coming through the control of my government, and now we have one enemy: it’s ISIL. And this equipment, it is to the Iraqi army. The peshmerga is part [of] the Iraqi army. So there is no problem, absolutely,” he said.
Many ministerial visits
The ambassador recently sent congratulations on his prime minister’s behalf to Mr. Trudeau, and flowers to new key cabinet ministers. That included a special bouquet to Marc Garneau, the newly named transport minister who went to Iraq with the ambassador in 2014 when Mr. Garneau was foreign affairs critic, along with his NDP counterpart and then-foreign minister John Baird.
During that trip, Mr. Al-Hussaini and Mr. Baird went to the front line, only about a kilometre from ISIS, he estimated—an experience he said he won’t forget.
Other memories of his time in Canada include the ministerial visits both of Canadians and Iraqis, and then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s visit to Iraq in May, for which the ambassador helped with security and logistical issues.
One of the challenges of his five-year posting, the ambassador indicated, was first convincing a Canadian minister to travel to Iraq: Jason Kenney started the trend as immigration minister in 2012, followed by Mr. Baird, Rob Nicholson and others.
“I spent two years to encourage one minister of Canada to come and visit Iraq. This is very important just to see in…reality, not in the media,” said the envoy.
When he arrived in 2010, he said, Canada-Iraq ties were “like a baby,” indicating the size of one with his hands. “And now it is a very big boy,” he added with a broad smile.
He said he valued that in Canada he felt welcomed by Canadians as a human, not as a foreigner.
Having completed his first ambassadorial posting, he is set to head back to Baghdad next week with his wife and mother, though two sons, 20 and 21, plan to stay behind to finish their post-secondary studies in Canada. Mr. Al-Hussaini said he’d find out what his next assignment would be once he’d returned.
The acceptance process for a new Iraqi ambassador has yet to finish, he said, but he expected one to arrive within a few weeks of the agrément.