Iraq-US relations on upswing as Al Kadhimi set to visit White House

Mustafa Al Kadhimi’s administration is thawing the chilly relationship between Baghdad and Washington as he works out details of the future of bilateral ties

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi's visit to the White House this week illustrates the changing fortunes of the Iraq-US relationship under the new administration and sets the stage for substantive talks on the future of bilateral ties, experts say.

Mr Al Kadhimi will meet US President Donald Trump on Thursday and begin to wrap up a strategic dialogue launched in June to define the future of US-Iraqi relations on everything from trade and business to security co-operation and aid.

While the US has been central to the post-invasion rebuilding of Iraq, relations between Baghdad and Washington have waxed and waned over the years.

The May appointment of Mr Al Kadhimi, who has good ties in Washington, may reverse a period of turbulent relations between the two countries caused in part by Iran-backed militia attacks on US and international troops in Iraq.

The Iraqi Parliament, led by Shiite MPs, also passed bills this year to order US forces out of the country after Washington killed Iranian Quds Force head Gen Qassem Suliemani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in a January air strike.

But, now, the Iraqi government is working to rebuild relations and the US is keen to see ties improve, Abbas Kadhim, the director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told The National.

“The US-Iraqi Strategic Dialogue had a good start in June and now there is an opportunity to move to more substantive discussions to shape the future US-Iraqi bilateral relations and the nature of their co-operation on many fronts,” Mr Kadhim said.

Ahead of the visit, the prime minister stressed how vital US assistance is to Iraq in countering threats from ISIS and other extremist groups.

He told the Associated Press this week that his office is dedicated to introducing security sector reforms as rogue militant groups stage near-daily attacks against his government.

Mr Al Kadhimi pointed out that not all assistance is boots on the ground.

“In the end, we will still need co-operation and assistance at levels that today might not require direct and military support, and support on the ground,” Mr Al Kadhimi said.

The co-operation between Baghdad and Washington “will reflect the changing nature of terrorism’s threat”, including continued training and weapons support, he said.

Mr Al Kadhimi’s visit to the White House on Thursday during a global pandemic that has largely halted international travel also shows the importance that the Trump administration places on good ties.

"Al Kadhimi is the first leader to visit the White House since Covid-19, and [that] underlines how important Iraq is to the United States," Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told The National.

Vigorous preparations have been taken by both sides and the trip follows months of tightening of relations.

“The centrepiece of the visit is around six energy deals that will make Iraq more self-sufficient and energy independent,” Mr Knights said.

Iraq currently imports gas and electricity from Iran to boost power production in its ageing network and prevent widespread blackouts as it struggles to meet daily needs.

There have been discussions with Gulf states about connecting power grids but Iraq is also looking to boost domestic production as it tries to overhaul public service provision after years of neglect.

"Both sides will aim to produce a better show than Al Kadhimi’s trip to Iran [last month], where a lack of respect was shown to Iraq," Mr Knights said.

Mr Al Kadhimi’s administration has inherited an array of unenviable challenges.

He took office at a time when Iraq is struggling with the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, which has taken a heavy toll on its economy due to the slashing of oil prices.

Anti-government protests renewed in recent weeks, with the previous administration of Adel Abdul Mahdi having used violence to quell demonstrators. This led to his resignation.

Tens of thousands of protesters were injured and hundreds killed as they called for an end to corruption, as well as efforts to improve poor public services and unemployment. The violence that met them affected public trust in the new government.

Mr Al Kadhimi said his administration is working on a “white paper” to produce reforms to deal with the economic crisis the country has endured for years.

He is also trying to balance tensions between the US and Iran, which have often played out in Baghdad.

The visit to Washington will be Mr Al Kadhimi's second foreign trip, the first was to Iran, showing how he is trying to manage the relationship between the two sides, Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based political analyst, told The National.

“Three months into the job, the prime minister needs US assistance, but he also has to provide assurances about what Iraq is doing to address US concerns,” Mr Jiyad said.

Upon completing his visit, Mr Al Kadhimi will relay back to the political players in Iraq for support on addressing US concerns.

“He will listen to what the Americans have to say and then come back and relate that to the people that essentially got him in the job. He can’t do everything by himself and he needs support from Iraq’s political parties,” Mr Jiyad said.

Without their support, Mr Al Kadhimi cannot make any political reforms and will not be able to address Washington’s issues, he said.

The US is mostly concerned about the welfare of its military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq after coming under rocket attacks in recent months.

The prime minister said protection of diplomatic missions in the Green Zone and for the US-led coalition had been fortified in response to the repeated rocket fire.

“We are committed to reforming the security establishment and enhancing its ability to deal with these kinds of challenges and holding accountable those who fail to protect civilians and put an end to these outlawed groups,” Mr Al Kadhimi said.