On August 20, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with US President Donald Trump in Washington DC for the second round of the Strategic Dialogues, a series of bilateral talks during which the leaders attempted to discuss the future of both countries’ economic, political and security relations. In line with the purpose of the first meeting, held in Baghdad in June, the ultimate aim was the promotion of stability in the Washington-Baghdad relationship and enhancement of the ties between the two countries based on mutual interests in Iraq and in the region.
The Iraqi PM’s visit also came as a direct consequence of the enduring competition for influence in Iraq between the United States and Iran. One month before, the Iraqi prime minister travelled to Iran for a high-profile visit with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. During his first trip abroad since becoming prime minister (in this perspective, a “political victory” for the Islamic Republic), al-Kadhimi examined the most urgent issues and animosities between Tehran and Baghdad: the activities of certain armed groups among the Iran-backed militias in Iraq, border closures and the development of Iran’s influence on Iraqi politics.
These bilateral talks took place in a period of immense political pressure that the Iraqi prime minister is experiencing at home, primarily because of Iraq’s dire economic situation, the COVID-19 pandemic and growing popular dissent. According to Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq and head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), nowadays in Iraq “poverty has increased by over 10%; 1/3 of Iraqis now live below the poverty line, and 2 out of 5 suffer multiple deprivations in accessing basic social services”.
Not surprisingly, the most urgent issue discussed in Washington was the future role of the United States and the presence of American troops in the country. Recently, tensions between the United States and Iran had profound repercussions on Iraq. Since the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike ordered by Washington at the Baghdad International Airport in early January, Iraqi relations with American counterparts have become increasingly precarious. The result has been growing anti-American sentiment among the Iraqi population and the spread of tit-for-tat attacks between Iranian-backed militias and US forces.
The United States lined up 5,200 men in Iraq, aimed at training Iraqi counterterrorism forces and helping them in the fight against the remnants of the Islamic State. In Washington, both leaders expressed their wish for troop reductions, without however providing further details on the matter. On the one hand, in the current electoral context, President Trump has repeatedly signalled his will to carry out his promise to withdraw all US forces from Iraq and Syria’s “endless wars”. This approach is confirming the diminishing importance that the presence of US troops in these countries is having in the upcoming plan for US involvement in the Middle East, as well as in the “maximum pressure” campaign to curtail Iranian influence in the region.
Similarly, al-Khadimi cannot ignore Iraqi hard-liners’ demand for the withdrawal of all US troops from the country (formally issued by the Iraqi parliament in January, although there is no national consensus on the topic). The Iraqi prime minister has stressed the need to prevent the country from newly becoming a battleground between the US and Iran, putting respect for Iraqi sovereignty and its territorial integrity at the core of his agenda. With the imperative of providing tangible results at home, the Iraqi delegation reported that Baghdad would embark on a new phase of cooperation with Washington in the framework of the fight against the Islamic State, asking assistance from the Americans but with a reduced military presence that reflects “the changing nature of the terrorism threat” in the area. In this framework, a team will be created to discuss mechanisms and timetables for the redistribution of US-led international coalition forces outside of Iraq.
This provision partially encompasses that of the Pentagon, which still counts on keeping a smaller (but enduring) force on the ground in Iraq, for both counterterrorism operations against Daesh and to deter the Iranian influence in the region. In the aftermath of the meeting in Washington, US officials also confirmed that US force levels in Iraq would be reduced to approximately 3,500 by the end of November. In the meantime, the US-led coalition has formally transferred Camp Taji to Iraqi Security Forces, after the US forces stationed there left the base on August 23.
In Washington, the US Department of Energy revealed that five American companies (Honeywell International, Baker Hughes, General Electric, Steller Energy and Chevron) had signed “considerable agreements” in the energy sector with the Iraqi government for the maximum value of $US 8 billion (the most crucial seems to be the one signed with the giant in the energy market, General Electric, with two contracts for US$1.2 billion). Finally, the State Department declared that an additional US$204 million in aid would be allocated to support the country’s reconstruction effort, to help Iraq in conducting “free and fair” elections in early 2021, and to assist the displaced Iraqi population in the region. What is clear is that the Trump administration is trying to give account of its political shift, portraying it not as disengagement from Iraq, but rather as the transition to a new long-term economic and security partnership with Baghdad.
While developing Iraqi infrastructures and refineries for oil and gas, as well as establishing a new energy company in the governorate of Dhi Qar, the final aim of these new partnerships is to strengthen Baghdad’s energy independence from Tehran. Today, Iraq daily imports from Iran between 1,200 to 1,500 megawatts of electricity and the equivalent of 3,300 gas-produced megawatts (an exception to the regime of economic sanctions imposed by Washington on the Islamic republic in an attempt to support the fragile Iraqi energy economy). Although the Baghdad government is embarking on new major projects to improve its natural gas output to achieve self-sufficiency, it could not find substitutes in the short-term. Instead, it is more likely that the United States would extend its waiver for Iraq on Iranian imports, set to expire in late September. Nevertheless, medium-term efforts could be made for strengthening Iraq’s economic ties with key allies and partners in the region. In this regard, Iraq aims to activate its relations in all directions, with Washington, Iran and the Arab countries. During Saudi Prince Faisal bin Farhan’s visit to Baghdad, the Iraqi PM expressed his will to connect their electricity grid, as well as to coordinate security efforts in the face of shared challenges. Similarly, on August 25, al-Khadimi met with King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Jordan to discuss economic cooperation and joint security efforts.
By avoiding confrontations and emphasizing Baghdad’s strategic relations, al-Kadhimi is showing Iraq’s resolve to balance national interests with international cooperation. Today, Iraq is in the process of formulating its strategic priorities in the region and the world. A particularly challenging task, in light of an extremely volatile and rapidly evolving regional environment.