Drawn by the prospect of billions more in trade, the Canadian government is suddenly making a bet on Iraq, deciding it must also be willing to engage a country whose sectarian divides and political fault lines pose challenges for the Mideast.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird signalled the desire to reconnect with Iraq with a surprise trek to Baghdad under heavy security on Monday, the first visit by a Canadian foreign minister in 37 years.
Iraq, still troubled by violence, now has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, including an oil industry in which Canadian companies can see bigger potential. It's also a fragile country with partisan divides whose stability is, Ottawa believes, important to a region with many fault lines.
But the trip to Iraq is in some ways an unlikely pilgrimage for Mr. Baird to lead now. The new Iraq has traded U.S. troops for heavy influence from neighbouring Iran, and Mr. Baird is a vocal Iran critic who presided over the cutting of Canada's diplomatic ties with Tehran.
"We want to engage. It's important," Mr. Baird told The Globe and Mail as he rode in the back of an armoured car between a Baghdad church and a meeting with vice-president Khodair al-Khozaei. "The Iranian influence, does that concern us, here and in other parts of the region? Absolutely. But the way to combat that isn't to not engage."
Mr. Baird is on a 12-day tour of the Middle East. The Iraq visit was unpublicized before he left, as a security precaution, and was heavily guarded as his convoy sped down Baghdad roads, past armoured vehicles and through checkpoint after checkpoint in the capital's safer Green Zone, for meetings with senior Iraqis, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
His stops included a visit to Iraq's parliament, to meet ministers and officials who almost uniformly said they want to see Canada take a bigger interest in Iraq. He also lit an Easter candle in a small Anglican church in the less secure Red Zone of Baghdad, where he met with clerics of several faiths, including Shiites, Christians and Bahai.
After decades where Ottawa has had little connection to Iraq, the visit marked a sudden signal of interest. The last Canadian cabinet minister to visit was Mark MacGuigan in 1976, but two have now gone in about a month. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney made a trip in March.
And Mr. Baird came to announce that Canada is opening a diplomatic office in Baghdad, staffed by a permanent chargé d'affaires, Stephanie Duhaime. It will be housed inside the British embassy's large, secure compound. Until now, diplomats based in Jordan flew to Baghdad to conduct Canada's business.
Business is one reason for the diplomatic interest. Even with continued violence and few government-to-government ties, Iraq has become Canada's biggest trading partner in the Middle East, with annual two-way trade reaching $4.2-billion in 2012. Canada has its eye on opening a trade office in Erbil, in the more stable north, where oil business holds potential. But Ottawa needs to establish a permanent presence in Baghdad first.
It's not the full embassy Iraqis would like to see – officials said security would cost $20-million – but it is a return to Baghdad.
That is a sign not only of Canada's desire to expand trade, but also a desire to engage diplomatically with Iraq, whose Shia-Sunni divide threatens its stability and echoes tensions throughout the Mideast. But Mr. Baird suggested he believes Iraq is more than an Iranian puppet, and that there's a possibility of affecting its complex politics with a steady push for pluralism.
Mr. al-Maliki, a Shiite, has an uneasy coalition with Sunnis and Kurds. Widespread protests by Sunnis, who complain they have been marginalized, have gone on for months in many cities. Mr. Baird spent much of the day speaking of the need for pluralism, for inclusion of ethnic and religious groups, in meetings with parliamentarians, ministers and Mr. al-Maliki.
Iraq's position on regional fault-lines, like the civil war in Syria, is also increasingly important, and Mr. Baird said that dominated discussions with Mr. al-Maliki.
Last week, visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Iraq to stop Iran from flying weapons to Syria through Iraqi airspace to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Iraq has since promised to conduct inspections, but it's unclear whether it has the will to stop its ally's shipments.
"We've got to push them even more," Mr. Baird said. "If you push them and they do more, that's better than if they do less."
But Mr. Baird said Iraq, which has expressed concern that the opposition might displace Mr. Assad's regime, shares one preoccupation about Syria with Ottawa. Baghdad fears that Islamist extremists fighting with the Syrian opposition might turn on Iraq. Mr. Baird noted that Canada is one of the few Western countries that has not recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the people, in part because Ottawa believes they have not done enough to distance themselves from extremists.