US and Iraq announce energy co-operation and Covid aid after Washington meeting

Joint plan to end the presence of US combat troops in Iraq by the end of this year also announced

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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi’s meeting with US President Joe Biden on Monday concluded with a joint statement announcing further energy co-operation, Covid-19 aid for Iraq and the end of US combat missions in Iraq.

Mr Al Kadhimi is presiding over a number of domestic crises and seeking wider international support to rebuild the country’s crumbling public services, which have faltered under years of conflict, corruption and mismanagement.

“Given that we’re all dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, and particularly Iraq has been hard-hit by Covid, we are delivering 500,000 Pfizer vaccines through Covax to Iraq,” a senior White House official said in a call on Monday, referring to the international scheme to provide Covid-19 vaccines to countries in need.

“In addition, $155 million in humanitarian assistance to support over 1 million IDPs in Iraq, announced by the State Department,” the official said.

There are still around 1.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Iraq following the war against ISIS, which is continuing, but wound down significantly following the defeat of the group in Mosul in 2017.

Since then, US and international Coalition forces have assisted the Iraqi government, in line with prior security co-operation agreements signed before 2011.

A small number of joint Iraqi-US combat missions against ISIS involving special forces from both sides concluded in 2019.

Aid commitments

Compared with previous high-level meetings between Iraqi leaders and US presidents, Washington's commitments following talks were limited, including an already announced delivery of Covid-19 vaccines and a $5.2 million contribution to UN election monitoring in advance of a national vote in October.

In comparison, last year the Export-Import Bank of the US (EXIM) announced that it would commit to fulfilling a $5 billion dollar Memorandum of Understanding with Iraq, following a meeting between Mr Al Kadhimi and Donald Trump in Washington.

Those funds were mainly to support existing US projects — particularly in the energy sector, where companies including General Electric, Exxon, Chevron and Baker Hughes were either implementing or seeking billions of dollars worth of contracts.

The US energy sector's involvement in Iraq was delivered a blow in April when US oil giant Exxon announced it was going to sell its 32.7 per cent stake in the Supergiant West Qurna 1 oilfield –one of Iraq's biggest – which it operated alongside a number of international oil companies, with PetroChina holding a share of the same size.

“Exxon Mobil is considering exiting Iraq for reasons that are to do with its internal management practices, decisions, and not because of the particular situation in Iraq,” Mr Al Kadhimi told reporters following his meeting with Mr Biden.

“When Exxon Mobil departs, we will not accept its replacement to be other than another American company,” he said, speaking through a translator.

Nonetheless, significant US participation in Iraq’s energy sector would continue, the White House said on Monday. Baker Hughes would begin work on a project first announced in 2017 and finalised in January this year, intended to capture and process gas from oil production for use in generating electricity.

Baker Hughes “will be breaking ground later this fall on a really historic project that has been many years under discussion, and we were finally able to get it over the line. And it’ll be a gas capture project … it’ll capture about 5.2 million cubic meters of flared gas every day,” the White House statement said.

The US has in recent years pressured Iraq to accelerate the capture of gas from oil fields, to use in place of gas imported from Iran.

This summer Iran has also suffered an energy crisis and has been unable to supply Iraq with enough gas to keep its power plants fully operational, causing power outages amid blazing summer heat.

Iraq and US company General Electric will also continue projects worth in excess of $2 billion to connect the Iraq and Jordan energy grids, in addition to implementing previously signed contracts to upgrade Iraq's power plants and ageing electricity grid, the White House statement said.

Aside from energy cooperation, the most touted announcement was a joint plan to end the presence of US combat troops in Iraq by the end of this year.

That was seen by analysts as almost entirely symbolic, given that the small presence of US forces is currently confined to training missions on sprawling, joint Iraqi-US bases.

“The two delegations also emphasised that the bases hosting US and other Coalition personnel are Iraqi bases and are operating per existing Iraqi laws; they are not US or Coalition bases, and the presence of international personnel in Iraq is solely in support of the Government of Iraq’s fight against ISIS,” the White House said.

Updated: July 27, 2021, 1:30 PM