Iraqi PM hails 'strategic partner' US ahead of invasion anniversary

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani is seeking to reduce American-Iran competition in the country

Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani says it is to his country's benefit to boost its relationship with the US. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani has called the US Iraq's “strategic partner” days ahead of the 20th anniversary of the American-led invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power.

The invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003 that toppled Saddam’s regime had a profound and lasting impact on the country, its people and the wider region.

Mr Al Sudani was speaking at an annual forum organised by the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaymaniyah. It brings together international Iraq experts and academics to discuss Iraq's future and how the country can overcome decades of systemic problems.

“The United States helped us in Iraq in the process of changing [the regime] and we have the Strategic Framework Agreement”, said Mr Al Sudani, referring to an agreement the two countries signed before the withdrawal of US troops in late-2011, marking the end of the military mission.

“Iraq sees the US as a strategic partner and that it is to the benefit of Iraq to boost this relationship in all fields and activate the Strategic Framework Agreement in all fields: security, politics, economy and technology, and that’s what we are working on,” Mr Al Sudani said.

The US spent about $60 billion trying to rebuild Iraq between 2003 and 2011, but much of its infrastructure had fallen into disrepair or was ruined during the 2014-2018 war against ISIS. Over the same period, Iranian investment in Iraq surged and the two countries forged stronger ties, causing unease in Washington.

But the US has continued funding reconstruction and at least half of Iraq's electricity supply is based on equipment provided by American firm GE. Iraq relies on Iran for gas for about 30 per cent of its power needs.

Also speaking was retired Lt Gen Terry A Wolff, an adviser to US President Joe Biden, who served in Iraq. He said Washington's relations with Baghdad remained “strong and strategic".

“To make clear, the United States remains committed to Iraq and to the region,” he told the forum.

“In the Biden administration, we’re focused on implementing the [Strategic Framework Agreement] and deepening the strategic relationship across the full range of bilateral issues.”

In an apparent message to Iran, Lt Gen Wolff said the US would push back against attempts to control key maritime routes in the region.

Washington will “not allow for regional powers to jeopardise freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways”, he said during a panel with The National's Editor in Chief, Mina Al-Oraibi.

Post-ISIS tensions

Since the war against ISIS, US-Iraq relations have been fraught with complications. Ostensibly allies, Baghdad worked closely with the US to defeat ISIS, part of a 70-nation coalition. But Iran has maintained close ties with Iraq's most powerful Shiite parties while influencing Sunni and Kurdish elites.

Iran-backed militias killed hundreds of US soldiers during the occupation. Former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, who is close to Mr Al Sudani and is from his Dawa Party, has formed several alliances with Iran-backed groups which are part of a powerful bloc called the Co-ordination Framework.

Tensions between the Iran-backed groups, some of which are in a coalition of militias called the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), have remained high, reaching a peak in January 2020 when a US drone strike killed the de facto head of the PMF, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis.

Attacks by some factions in the PMF on coalition forces have ebbed and flowed since then, and are currently falling.

Some analysts say this is because the PMF now has unprecedented political power — including an official state company — and feels less threatened by the coalition presence, although some factions in the PMF are still calling for the US to get out of Iraq.

Ending foreign interference

Mr Al Sudani hinted on Wednesday that he wanted to close the chapter of foreign forces using Iraq as a battleground.

“We need Iraq to be peaceful and stable in the future away from foreign interventions, wars and conflicts,” he said.

Iraq should be an “arena for rivals to meet and economic partnerships rather than an arena for settling scores”.

Iraq remains a country that is still grappling with the legacy of that invasion but is making progress in certain areas.

While the removal of Saddam's regime brought an end to decades of authoritarian rule and repression, it also led to a prolonged period of violence, instability and uncertainty. But Mr Al Sudani said the end of the Baath era also brought the close of a dark chapter in Iraq's history.

“For sure, we remember all the tragedies, the crimes, the futile wars, sanctions and poverty that was clearly widespread during the dictatorship,” Mr Al Sudani said.

Although removing Saddam led to the establishment of a federal parliamentary republic based on national elections every four years, the political situation is unstable, with continuing tensions and protests over issues such as corruption, economic inequality and sectarianism.

The invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq led to a significant deterioration in security in the country, allowing various militant groups and insurgent factions — both Sunni and Shiite — to emerge.

'No time to lose'

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary General for Iraq, said events of the past 20 years “did not only compound existing fragilities inherited from the previous decades, they also exposed new weaknesses”.

Without tackling the political, security, economic, environmental and institutional challenges, Iraq could face another cycle of unrest similar to the one that erupted in October 2019, Ms Plasschaert said.

“What I am essentially saying is, there is no time to lose,” she told the forum.

“Definitely, the challenges ahead are manifold. It would be naive to think that the legacy of past hardships and newly emerging threats will not continue to test the country’s resilience.

“Drivers of instability in the country’s more recent past … remain, to a large extent, the same, resulting in a pattern of recurring crises.

“Iraq will be put to the test sooner or later. But the fear is that, without prompt action, Iraq will flunk this test.”

The rise of ISIS

Rising sectarian tension after 2003 led to a prolonged period of violence and instability fuelling bloody sectarian strife that led to the rise of ISIS in 2014 when it overran a third of the country.

Although the security situation in Iraq has improved significantly in recent years, the country still faces threats from extremist groups like ISIS.

Iraq's economy, meanwhile, continues to be dependent on volatile oil prices and suffers from high unemployment and poverty rates and a lack of foreign investment.

However, there have been some positive developments, such as increased oil production and exports, but more efforts to diversify the economy are needed.

Legacy of conflict

Ethnic and religious groups that had coexisted relatively peacefully under Saddam's regime became increasingly polarised after 2003, leading to more violence and bloodshed. However, there have been some positive developments in recent years, such as increased efforts to promote reconciliation and dialogue between different groups.

The invasion also reshaped regional politics and dynamics, as neighbouring countries became increasingly involved in Iraq's affairs and sought to exert influence over the country's new government.

But Iraq's role in the wider region has evolved in the years since then, with the country becoming a key player in regional politics and diplomacy, as it tries to juggle its relationships with the US, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Updated: March 15, 2023, 6:11 PM