China cements influence in Iraq through oil, infrastructure deals
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And state firm PetroChina has partnered with France's TotalEnergies and Malaysia's Petronas to exploit the Halfaya oilfield in southern Iraq.
"China is just getting started," ambassador Cui Wei told journalists in a recent videoconference.
But Beijing is interested in more than just Iraq's trade potential, Calabrese said.
Beyond the "obvious commercial incentives" are China's ambitions to "deeply entrench itself in a country and a region that the West, and especially the United States, has dominated," he said.
- Belt and Road -
Baghdad is an "important cooperation partner" in the project, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman told AFP, adding that Beijing had "actively participated in the reconstruction of Iraq's economy".
Between 2013 and this year, Iraq was "the third most important" Belt and Road Initiative partner "for energy engagement", according to a paper by Christoph Nedopil of the Green Finance and Development Center at Fudan University, Shanghai.
One aspect of the agreement, inked while former Iraqi premier Adel Abdel Mahdi visited Beijing, was a deal to build Iraqi schools.
Two Chinese partners were tapped to carry out the construction -- PowerChina and Sinotech -- with 8,000 education facilities to eventually be built.
Work has also begun on an airport in the southern city of Nasiriyah, built by the China State Construction Engineering Corp.
- Mandarin classes -
Under such projects, Chinese firms must work with local contractors that "provide manpower and raw materials", said Haider Majid, an Iraqi government spokesman.
But Yesar al-Maleki, an analyst for the Middle East Economic Survey, said there was "a big question mark" over how the Iraqi contractors are selected.
"Many of these companies are rumoured to be politically connected, and this is how they got the contracts," he told AFP.
Iraqi contractors could abuse the initiative for "useless projects", he said, warning that Iraq could end up in a "death trap" of debt.
Banking on this, the Iraqi-Chinese Friendship Association in Baghdad has begun offering classes in Mandarin.
The majority of his students are businessmen, like Laith Ahmed, who imports electronics from China.
Ahmed cited challenges communicating with Chinese traders, "most of whom do not speak English", but said that this hadn't stood in the way of business.
"Chinese products have flooded the Iraqi market," Ahmed said.