US challenges and opportunities in Iraq – opinion

Pursuing a purely Iraqi agenda and putting Iraqi interests first, requires Baghdad to have a constructive dialogue with the US and take Washington’s demands seriously.

U.S. soldiers inspect the site where an Iranian missile hit at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq January 13, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN DAVISON)
U.S. soldiers inspect the site where an Iranian missile hit at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq January 13, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN DAVISON)
On June 11, the US-Iraq strategic dialogue was launched. It mostly covered political, security, economic and cultural aspects. Following the end of the meeting, both sides stressed that in July there will be more comprehensive discussions. In fact, this dialogue constitutes a turning point in determining the bilateral relations between Baghdad and Washington.
The key question that could be raised is: Why do the US and Iraq need a strategic dialogue despite having SOFA and security agreement which were signed in 2008?
Due to growing Iranian influence in Iraq, both Baghdad and Washington need comprehensive negotiation to redefine their interests and demands. Since the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iraq has become a central area of a proxy war between the US and Iran.
Iran, through its proxies, has continually targeted US facilities and military forces. The escalation between both sides reached dangerous levels following the assassination by drone-strike of Qasem Soleimani on January 3. Iran not only is militarily exerting pressures on the US in Iraq, it has also politically created serious challenges for US-Iraqi policy.
Tehran pushed Baghdad to not comply with US sanctions on Iran. In this regard, Iraq becomes the key corridor to undermine US maximum pressure against Tehran. Moreover, despite the US vital role of supporting Iraqi forces to defeat ISIS, Iran and its aligned Shia parties passed a bill in parliament demanding the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
Taking this into consideration, it is necessary more than ever that the US and Iraq have a comprehensive discussion to restructure and reset their relations. It seems unlikely that the US would tolerate Iraq’s current indifference toward growing Iranian influence in Iraq.
The US priority in discussions with the Iraqi authorities will likely mainly focus on bringing Iran-backed militias under the control of Iraqi state, keeping a US military presence in Iraq, complying with the US sanctions on Iran, terminating Baghdad’s dependence on Iranian energy, making economic reform and fighting corruption. Furthermore, the US would push Iraq to rebalance its relations with regional states and diminish Iran’s influence in Iraq.
However, it is still unclear how Iraqi authorities would respond to US demands, despite the fact that the new prime minister, Mustafa Kadhimi, has close ties with the US, and wants to build a strategic partnership with Washington and restrict Iranian influence in Iraq.
SINCE TAKING power in May, Kadhimi has reiterated on preserving the sovereignty of Iraq. On May 28, Kadhimi asserted that he would not allow the activity of any armed group outside of Iraq’s authorities. Moreover, on June 3, the Iraqi authorities issued a new order to regular Shia militias, cut their relations with political parties, and brought them under control of state.
In addition to this, in a recent visit from Iraqi Finance Minister Ali Allawi to Saudi Arabia, the key Iranian rival, both sides agreed to strengthen their relations and open a new page in diplomatic relations. Saudi authorities agreed to Iraqi demands to invest in Iraqi natural gas and give Baghdad loans to cover its budget deficit.
In reality, pursuing a purely Iraqi agenda and putting Iraqi interests first, requires Baghdad to have a constructive dialogue with the US and take Washington’s demands seriously. Iraq is a divided state across sectarian and ethnic lines, and it is also experiencing a deep economic crisis. Its military institutions and sovereignty have been undermined by Iranian proxies.
Baghdad suffers from huge, systematic corruption across all sectors. Iraq’s democratic system has faced serious challenges. Also, Iraqi forces do not have capabilities to prevent the resurgence of ISIS. Hence, the US would be able to assist Iraq politically, economically and military.
The US has shown its willingness to provide support to Iraqi military forces and help Baghdad overcome its economic crisis. In addition, the US would be able to play a key role in integrating Iraq into the regional and international system in a way that serves Iraqi interests.
However, that help from the US would depend on whether Iraqi authorities are ready to be decisive in defending their sovereignty and preventing Iran and its proxies from intervening in Iraqi domestic affairs. The failure of Iraqi authorities to respond to the US demands would put Baghdad in the gravest danger. It could lead to withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and the possibility of imposing harsh economic sanctions on Baghdad.
The writer holds a PhD in politics and international relations from Leicester University. He currently works as a lecturer at the University of Salahaddin in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He has published a variety of academic articles on US foreign policy, Middle Eastern politics and Kurdish issues.


Tags Iraq