Opportunities, challenges in US-Iraqi dialogue – opinion

Iraq witnessed many transformations and changes during that period, and Iran was the main entity influencing them.

US Army soldiers keep watch on the US embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq January 1, 2020 (photo credit: DOD/LT. COL. ADRIAN WEALE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
US Army soldiers keep watch on the US embassy compound in Baghdad, Iraq January 1, 2020
The American-Iraqi relationship went through two stages. The first started in 2003 with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and lasted until 2011, when American forces withdrew from Iraq. The second stage started in 2014, with direct supervision of and assistance to the coalition forces in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), and lasted until mid-2017.
Iraq witnessed many transformations and changes during that period, and Iran was the main entity influencing them. Thus begins the third stage in the relationship between Iraq and the United States of America.
Reorganizing American forces in Iraq
Does the presence of the United States in Iraq require a clear definition or reorganization? Especially after the killing of the commander of the Iranian Quds Army Qassem Soleimani and the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Committee Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the bombing of the American military bases in Iraq, and after the Iraqi Parliament’s vote on January 20, calling for expelling foreign forces from Iraq, led by the American forces .
As a result of the lack of a suitable atmosphere for the American forces, in addition to the outbreak of the corona epidemic around the world, the United States decided on March 20 to withdraw and evacuate the Qaim Base, the Western Ghayara Base, and the K1 Air Base. Four military bases were also evacuated. Others are stationed around Baghdad Airport.
That is why the Bayan Center for Research and Planning, based in Baghdad, believes that both the Ain al-Assad Air Base on the Syrian border, the Harir Base in Erbil, and the Taji military base have become an integral part of the US plan to reorganize its military affairs and security in Iraq.
Restricting Iran's actions
On the sidelines of the missile strikes on US military bases, The New York Times, on March 27, published a report by Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt titled “Pentagon Order to Plan for Escalation in Iraq Meets Warning From Top Commander.” In it they report clearly that the Pentagon decided to destroy and remove Hezbollah from Iraq because they were behind the missile strikes that targeted military bases in Iraq.
Proceeding from this, the United States is working to deploy Patriot missiles in Erbil and at the Ein al-Assad Base, in addition to installing the near-range defense system at the Taj Base. This stable and definite option indicates that the American presence in Iraq is stable and strategic. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on April 7, inside the State Department building, "We called on Iraq to have a detailed dialogue, and we support an Iraqi government that is free from sectarian actions and able to end terrorism and corruption.”
Natural gas: A new opportunity to coordinate
On May 4, the USA gave Iraq six months to end gas purchases from Iran. According to a survey and analysis by the Mediterranean Institute for Regional Research (MIRS), Iraq has 112 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and needs 700 million cubic feet per day. However, in 2011, Iraq and Iran agreed that Iran will sell Iraq 50 million cubic meters per day.
However, according to the official spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity, Ahmed Abadi, this quantity has changed with Iran increasing its domestic needs. Therefore, since May, three million cubic meters of gas are bought daily from Iran.
If Iran's imports of gas stop, Iraq will be deprived of 4,000 megawatts of electricity. Instead, Iraq will need the Okaz field in Anbar Province, which is located south of the town of Al-Qaim, and is the largest gas field in Iraq and currently has 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural resources.
Iraq is rich in natural gas, especially the fields in the Kurdistan region. While Iran sells gas to Iraq at five times the normal price of the gas market, Iraq can buy gas from the Kurdistan region internally, and this will be a factor for internal political stability and the common interests of the Kurds and Baghdad.
There are many large gas fields in the Kurdistan Region: the Nabawi Field 4.9 trillion cubic feet, Khormal 3.6 TCF, Kormor 4.4 TCF, Chamchamal 3.4 TCF, Miran 3.5 TCF, and Kordamir 2.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, in addition to other fields such as Atrush and Tawke, which produce a small amount of gas.
Natural gas has become a phenomenon and the source of regional agreements and conflicts. Turkey buys between $45 billion and $60b. in gas annually from Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Nigeria and Algeria. In 2019, the gas pipeline between Turkey and Iran was blown up, and at the end of May 2020, the Turkish government refused to repair the pipeline because they believe that the Iranians will work to establish a natural gas pipeline from Basra port to Syria to support and assist Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In general, natural gas fields and reservoirs in the Caspian, Gulf and Mediterranean areas are in the midst of political competition and military exercises to protect their areas of interest. In the meantime, Iraq and the Kurdistan Region in particular need to reach their strategic position within these competitions.
Kurdistan region: Reform or partition?
The position of the Kurds in the Middle East is witnessing a remarkable development, but the Kurds are an unprepared force yet unable to benefit from the existing threats. The war against ISIS; the end of the Kurdish authority phase in Kirkuk on October 16, 2017; the decline in the price of oil; the absence of oil; the fragile financial and economic institutions in the Kurdistan Region; the loss of revenue between the two ruling Kurdish parties; dealings by the United States of America and other countries with the central government – all of these indications highlight the imperative of the Kurdistan region to return to the center, which means Baghdad.
The return of the Kurdistan region to the central government in Baghdad, in political, economic, military and even diplomatic terms, will create many opportunities for the region, the main opportunity of which is the participation of the Kurds in the American-Iraqi dialogue.
Also, no neighboring country wants to create internal conflicts through the Kurdish parties and destabilize the security and safety of the region and divide the Kurdistan Region. However, the Kurdistan region of Iraq at this stage is facing fears of division due to the Iranian-American conflict on the one hand, and internal conflicts between the two ruling parties on the other.
The Kurdistan region is also involved in a series of complaints filed by many international oil companies. Also, the Iraqi Ministry of Oil and the Federal Court filed lawsuits against them in the past.
In short, the Kurdistan region faces great risks and is expected to see a state of division. On the other hand, Iran sees natural gas in the Kurdistan region as an alternative to Iranian gas to Turkey, due to the stability of the Patriot missile system at the Silk Base near Erbil.
Coronavirus: the great concern facing Iraqis
COVID-19 is a deadly pandemic, not a temporary threat. On the economic side alone, Europe was affected six billion euros during the first three months of the year. The virus almost threatens the Middle East with humanitarian disasters. In Turkey there are more than 166,000 infected people and cases so far and have killed more than 4,600.
In Iran, there are some 161,000 people infected and the pandemic has killed more than 8,000. These numbers may be undercounted because of a lack of transparency in publishing data on the disease. According to a Reuters report, all the figures released by the Iraqi government regarding corona are incorrect. Iraqi Health Minister Hassan Al-Tamimi expects 600 to 800 people in Iraq will be infected with the virus on a daily basis.
This number is huge for a country that has a backward political, economic and health system, and a population of 38 million (according to the Ministry of Planning). The UN special envoy for Iraq and official bodies also confirmed that the poverty rate in Iraq reached 40% even before the virus became a major threat. Continuity and growth of the virus might double that rate, and the government and the people might face a crisis never seen before.
Iraq is an important political, ideological, economic and security arena for Iran. The United States wants to have a specific and visible presence in Iraq. So there will be more Iranian-American competition in Iraq. This is why Iraq and the United States have a strategic dialogue with each other.
As a result, the US military and security sites are being strengthened and the US is training and strengthening Iraqi forces to weaken the role of political parties and militias whose reputation is declining day after day for lack of transparency, lack of accountability, nepotism, corruption and lack of the rule of law. All of these are undermining American efforts in Iraq for state building and reconstruction of the country, which has been hugely devastated by political conflict, sectarianism, terrorism and lack of sovereignty.
The United States believes that Iran and Turkey are interfering in Iraq’s affairs, and that arms are not in the hands of the state, but rather in the hands of militias or tribal leaders. The risk of developing ISIS sleeper cells is also a factor.
Corruption is a major threat to Iraq and the Kurdistan region. These crisess undermine not only Iraq, but might present a risk for the entire Middle East, neighboring countries and even the US and its coalition interests. Simply put, Iraq needs the USA to play a role of a savior because with the toppling of the former regime, America has opened a Pandora’s Box it cannot close.
Some believe that Iraq's Pandora box is yet unopened. With the next phase of Iraqi-American strategic dialogue the situation must be fixed, as the country cannot bear more crises. The US must also advocate to resolve issues between KRG and the central government, putting more pressure on all parties to make urgent reforms. The protests in the central and southern parts of the country demand better and more public services. Meanwhile, the situation in Kurdistan is very delicate because the KRG is lagging behind unable to pay public payroll and is literally bankrupted.
Therefore, it is necessary for the American administration to provide support to the Kurdish forces in conjunction with the deployment of the Patriot missile system, and not to hand over $249 million annually as assistance to the Peshmarga forces without conditions for reform.
A solution must also be found to deal with oil and gas income that are siphoned off by political parties. If not, then this will lead to further instability in the region and might be a cause for more Iranian and Turkish interference in the region. If public payrolls are not paid on a timely basis, this might lead to further extremism and radicalization among the youth who feel their futures are being stolen from them by the ruling parties.
With a new pandemic and the spread of poverty in the region, the people in the Kurdistan region and Iraq are expecting that even in the Iraqi Pandora’s Box there still remains hope and the strategic dialogue could be the Golden Fleece, and through it the Iraq people rightfully claim what is theirs, and also learn humility, compassion and respect, but also respect for laws and the need for accountability.
Dr. Pshtiwan Faraj is senior researcher at the Mediterranean Institute for Regional Studies and a former national consultant with the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq. Behroz Jafar is a Kurdish researcher and journalist, and founder and president of the Mediterranean Institute for Regional Studies.