Iraqi Prime Minister's US visit overshadowed by Iran's attack on Israel

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani's had wanted to focus on new economic opportunities

Iraqi Prime Minister visits Washington amid soaring Middle East tensions

Iraqi Prime Minister visits Washington amid soaring Middle East tensions
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As tensions soar in the Middle East following Iran's attack against Israel, the Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani's visit to Washington takes on profound significance with geopolitical ramifications.

President Joe Biden is hosting Mr Al Sudani at the White House on Monday at the start of a week-long visit that was supposed to focus on expanding bilateral ties and new economic opportunities when US forces eventually leave Iraq.

But Saturday's attack, during which Iran fired 300 drones and missiles through Iraqi airspace towards Israel, will change the focus of Mr Al Sudani's visit.

The events "will cast their shadow heavily on the visit, prompting the White House to impose very strict conditions on the Iraqi Prime Minister”, the political analyst Ihsan Al Shammari, who leads the Iraqi Political Thinking Centre think tank in Baghdad, told The National.

Israel, the US and UK shot down most of the drones and missiles, and Iran has said it considers its military action against Israel "completed", provided Israel does not strike back.

Tehran said Saturday's action was in retaliation for Israel's April 1 missile attack on Iran's embassy compound in Damascus that killed two senior Iranian commanders and other officers.

Mr Al Sudani took office in October 2022 as the nominee from the Iran-aligned Co-ordination Framework – the largest political group in the Iraqi parliament with 138 out of 329 seats.

Mr Biden needs Mr Al Sudani to rein in Iran-backed armed groups, who until early February had conducted scores of attacks on US troops in Iraq and Syria. The attacks have stopped for now after negotiations between Baghdad and Washington.

“The US will look very anxiously at the Prime Minister’s inability to control these armed factions, and also, even the guarantees he holds, I believe, will not be very reliable given what happened [on Saturday],” Mr Al Shammari said.

The Iranian attack, he added, will probably increase the pressure on the Prime Minister and could “complicate the negotiations and it may also greatly embarrass” him.

While attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria have abated, Iranian proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon have continued to attack Israel.

“Obviously, the attacks and further complication of the Middle East is going to distract from the positive image and context that the two countries have been trying to present in their bilateral relationship,” Sarhang Hamasaeed, Director of Middle East Programmes at the United States Institute of Peace, told The National.

But, he noted, that while Iran’s attack may take up considerable oxygen, it also presents an opportunity for Washington and Baghdad to “reaffirm directly the interest of the two countries”.

Balancing act

A key goal for Mr Al Sudani's visit is to secure an agreement on the withdrawal of foreign troops from his country, a decade after they arrived in Iraq to fight ISIS. He also wants more US companies to set up shop in Iraq.

Experts say Mr Al Sudani, a rare ally of both Washington and Tehran, is engaged in a difficult balancing act.

“He's under pressure from some internal elements to ensure that the US agrees to withdraw its troops,” Richard Schmierer, chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council and State Department official for more than three decades, told The National.

“But on the other hand, he is also responsible for Iraqi security and he knows that the absence of US security support would be very detrimental to his ability to provide security to his people.

“Squaring that circle, I think, will be a challenge.”

In an op-ed published last week, Mr Al Sudani said his visit is aimed at putting US-Iraqi relations “on a new, more sustainable foundation”.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with the United States to defuse crises and reduce tensions in the Middle East,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs.

“Yet we are intent on avoiding becoming caught in the conflict between two of our partners, Iran and the United States.”

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A senior State Department official said a discussion on the future bilateral defence and security relationship was “likely to be a very important part" of talks.

The official said the leaders will discuss potential for investments in areas including energy and water.

Baghdad is largely dependent on Iran for its energy needs and is facing an uncertain future with regard to water security due to the effects of climate change.

The White House said the visit is aimed at reinforcing “the strong bilateral partnership” between the two countries and will allow the two sides to consult on a wide range of issues, including the “evolution of the military mission” to fight ISIS.

“The leaders will reaffirm their commitment to the Strategic Framework Agreement and deepen their shared vision for a secure, sovereign, and prosperous Iraq fully integrated into the broader region,” a White House statement said.

Mr Al Sudani has been critical of the Biden administration’s continued political and military support of Israel and its right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It’s not just the Iraqi government, but the entire region has been dismayed by the way the Biden administration conducted itself in terms of this war – they completely left Benjamin Netanyahu in the driver's seat and exercised no leadership whatsoever,” Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq initiative at the Atlantic Council, told The National.

Mr Al Sudani also wants to create separate bilateral agreements with each of the countries taking part in the US-led international anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq.

“Rather than a one-stop-shop with a whole coalition that does everything, they want to unpack that and have bilateral agreements with each government,” Mr Kadhim explains.

“Will this solve the issue of troops in Iraq? Of course not.”

About 2,500 US troops remain in Iraq in an advise-and-assist capacity with the aim of preventing the resurgence of ISIS. Hundreds of troops from European countries are also in Iraq as part of the coalition.

Mr Biden, meanwhile, is also under pressure.

Earlier this month, eight Senate and House Republicans wrote to him, criticising his decision to host Mr Al Sudani, saying the meeting was “inappropriate” and that it would undermine US support for Israel and other allies in the region.

“Hosting the Iraqi prime minister … amplifies the message of your ongoing campaign to undermine Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu: the Biden administration is interested in appeasing Iran, not supporting our allies,” stated the letter, led by senators Rick Scott and Tom Cotton.

The politicians said Mr Al Sudani’s visit should be conditional on his administration resuming funding for the Kurdistan region and reducing Iran’s influence on the country.

Mr Schmierer said the war in Gaza has complicated US-Iraqi relations and efforts to withdraw American troops.

Security concerns will also complicate any economic aspirations in energy as well as potential investments in the private sector.

“I think the Prime Minister is going to have to balance many balls in the air,” Mr Schmierer said.

“This idea that Iran somehow has great leverage on Iraq is, I think, oversimplifying, as [Mr Al Sudani] does need to make sure he retains good relations with the Kurdish Regional Government and probably more importantly, with his Arab neighbours.”

Willy Lowry contributed to this report from Washington

Updated: April 15, 2024, 8:26 PM