US and Iraq unwinding strategic space

Published: June 16, 2020 11:43 AM

One of the far-reaching and unintended consequences was that the US handed over Iraq on a platter to Iran.

US, Iraq, ISIS,donald trump,  Persian Gulf,Qassem Soleimani, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis,terrorism, Iraqi PM, US iran tenison, defence newsTrump in his signature style threatened with more crippling sanctions. (Reuters photo)

By Amb Anil Trigunayat

Since the US invasion Iraq has not seen the peace, progress or democracy it had hoped for. On the contrary, during the past three decades, it has become a hotbed of extremism, terrorism and resultant violence with a vast array of non-state actors, militias and proxies becoming a way of life. More so since the onset of ISIS (Daesh) and the war against it brought in a free for all under the garb of fight against terrorism. Iraqis continued to suffer the brunt. US military intervention of 2003 was perhaps the biggest folly that has destabilised the region and the world.

One of the far-reaching and unintended consequences was that the US handed over Iraq on a platter to Iran. Now it is trying to decimate Iranian influence and its militias in Iraq and is being hit in the bargain as well even if Iran and its revolutionary guards and Islamic militias fought the ISIS on the same side as the USA and others. But in January in the wake of increasing US-Iran tensions in the Persian Gulf, US drones killed the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi Commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis when apparently he was going to visit the Iraqi Prime Minister who claimed that he was trying to work on a rapprochement between US and Iran. This caused a violent furore not only in Iran but also in Iraq who simply due to domestic political expediency could not let it pass. Iran extracted a calibrated revenge through missile attacks on US camps without exacerbating the ground situation. Iraq felt humiliated as its sovereignty was so blatantly violated. Hence the calls and protests against the presence of 5200 US forces on Iraqi soil became louder. Iraqi Parliament passed a resolution demanding their expulsion. Nothing would have pleased the Iranians more as they felt that the US should not have been there and in the region in the first place. Trump in his signature style threatened with more crippling sanctions.

Iraq has been facing economic turmoil due to low oil revenues and then under the clutches of COVID 19 when demand contraction for the hydrocarbons has multiplied the woes of the people. For months Iraqis have been protesting against the Government for its failure to provide employment, contain the high inflation and declining economic opportunity and growth. This was further compounded as the Prime Ministers had to resign and it became increasingly difficult to get a consensus candidate who could pass the muster of the complicated ethnoreligious constitutional provisions and competing political interests. Finally, last month former pro-US intelligence Chief Mustafa Khademi was able to form the government facing key challenges of public ire due to economic downturn and prevailing venom against the American forces. His premiership seems to have begun on a positive note as demonstrations have subsided and the dialogue with the Americans has begun at lease symbolically pleasing the Iraqis and Iranians alike.

On June 11 a virtual strategic dialogue, in accordance with the 2008 Framework Agreement, was held between the Senior Undersecretary Hashem Mostafa of Iraqi foreign Ministry and David Hale, US Under Secretary of Political affairs. The US announced that its forces had come back to Iraq in 2014 to fight against Daesh and as that threat has subsided they will be reducing their troops in Iraq. They reiterated that the US does not seek nor request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq. Although no timelines or numbers were made public the declared intent may assuage the public discontent and may provide an additional window of comfort to Khademi. In view of the upcoming US elections, it also fits in well with President Trump’s claims that he would withdraw US troops from abroad and unnecessary theatres of conflict. They are already doing so from Afghanistan and Germany and Saudi Arabia. How the US will continue to leverage its clout and influence when it wishes to take a targeted lead in the Indo-Pacific control and outreach especially against China’s growing ambitions remains to be seen. In Iraq how it visualises its security partnership will be closely watched. Meanwhile, Iraq has reiterated its commitment to protecting the military personnel of the International Coalition and the Iraqi facilities hosting them consistent with international law and specific arrangements for their presence as decided by the two countries. The other coalition partners will also have to make a call on their continued military presence.

Acknowledging fragile economic condition and need for fundamental reforms the US offered to depute economic advisers who could help Iraq tailor its funding requests to international financial institutions. Apart from its own bilateral assistance efforts will be made to attract major US companies in energy and hydrocarbons subject to favourable conditions. One of the key discussions was the US to return important political archives including artefacts and Baath Party archives to the Government of Iraq. Hopefully, these will provide the new governments and researchers a more objective and transparent analysis of the course of events in a country that could boast of being a powerful secular nation in the Middle East in the past.

To achieve security, stability and prosperity appear finally to be the key objectives even though analysts will take it with a pinch of salt. The US surely had made moderation in its approach towards Iraq especially with the new Prime Minister and will discuss these further at the Strategic Dialogue Higher Coordination Committee meeting in Washington DC. After Khademi took over the US has also extended a waiver from American sanctions till September this year allowing Iraq to import gas from Iran. Khademi happens to be the first Iraqi PM to have been invited for the official visit but obviously he will have to tread carefully between domestic expectations and US aspirations.

(The author is former Indian Ambassador to Libya, Jordan and Malta. Views expressed are personal.)

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