US and Iraq set to continue strategic dialogue

Baghdad needs the US to balance Iran, but only in a quiet way.

Then-US vice president Mike Pence delivers remarks to U.S. troops at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq November 23, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
Then-US vice president Mike Pence delivers remarks to U.S. troops at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq November 23, 2019
The US and Iraq are supposed to continue strategic dialogue talks, with a first round taking place today.
The origin of the talks is the former US administration. Iraq sought strategic dialogue with the Trump administration.
“The United States and the Republic of Iraq will hold Strategic Dialogue discussions via video teleconference on April 7 in accordance with the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement between our two countries,” the US State Department said recently.
The US invaded Iraq in 2003 and removed Saddam Hussein from office. An Iraqi constitution and elections followed in 2005. Eventually, pro-Iranian strongman Nouri al-Maliki came to power, largely with American support during the Obama administration.
The US left Iraq in 2011, but soon the country was falling apart again, as ISIS threatened Baghdad in 2014 and early 2015. ISIS carried out genocide, and the US rushed resources to help train and equip Iraqi forces. Some 200,000 Iraqis were trained, and Washington also advised and assisted Iraq through the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS coalition of some 60 countries.  
With Iraq back on its feet by 2017, other issues emerged. Haider Abadi, who had replaced Maliki, cracked down on a Kurdish independence referendum, sending tanks from the US into Kirkuk. He grabbed back Sinjar, which Kurds had helped liberate from ISIS. Despite ridding Mosul of the global jihadist group, he was pushed from office in the 2018 elections, and Iraq struggled to find a consensus leader.
Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi ended his short tenure after protesters were shot in 2019. Mustafa al-Kadhimi came to power in a divided country where pro-Iranian militias rule part of it. US forces have largely left or been confined to several bases due to Iranian-backed rocket attacks.
This leaves things in a complex place. The US wants an Iraq that is secure, but other countries are seeking to use it for their own agendas. Turkey has sent troops into the Kurdish region to fight the PKK. Iran has its tentacles throughout central and southern Iraq. The US position is not strong, but many countries in the region want America to stay in Iraq.
Israel is one of those countries because there are concerns that pro-Iranian groups could use Iraq to move weapons to Syria or even build up ballistic missile arsenals in Iraq to threaten the Jewish state. In 2019, Iraqi political parties linked to Iran accused Israel of airstrikes in Iraq.
It is not known what “strategic dialogue with the US” actually means. Washington is committed to a strong Iraq that is independent, and the US uses lots of keywords and talking points when referring to this imaginary entity. It is imaginary because the real Iraq is beset by corruption, infrastructure failure, militias and sectarian divisions.
Many Iraqis want a brighter future, but that has been hijacked by Iran. There is no real ability of Baghdad to also stop Turkish airstrikes or Iranian weapons trafficking. When Kadhimi tried confronting militias back in June, he was threatened. He has tried outreach to the Gulf in the past month, but it is not clear what may come next.  
The US wants dialogue to underpin the ability for it to stay in a limited way, at least at Asad base and in Erbil. It also wants to continue fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Iraq needs the US to balance Iran, but only in a quiet way. When Trump said that the US could use Iraq to “watch” Iran in December 2018, many Iraqis were angry. When Rex Tillerson, the former US secretary of state, told the pro-Iranian PMU militias – which are on the government payroll – to “go home,” he was summoned to Baghdad for a dressing down.
This is the real struggle for US dialogue with Iraq. It remains to be seen what might come next.