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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s visit to Washington, DC, where he met US President Donald Trump last month represents a phase of recovery in the recently strained US-Iraqi bilateral relationship, but Iraq needs to get serious about fighting corruption and reining in pro-Iran militias to continue strengthening ties with the US.
But so far, Iraq has produced no clear roadmap to tackle either of these issues that the US has said are important for future bilateral relations.
In the first meeting between a US president and an Iraqi prime minister since 2017, official talks focused on combatting ISIS, the presence of US troops in Iraq and curbing pro-Iran Shia militias’ power in Iraq. Deals on energy development and electricity and finance and health were signed.
While the US wants to maintain a strategic and close relationship with Iraq, it wants to do so without Iran’s interference and influence, and Iraq must be cognizant of the fine line it is walking. The summit supports and reinvigorates Iraq’s relationships with the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia after a few years of slow progress.
An opportunity to recalibrate Iraq’s regional policy
The successful US-Iraqi summit is a golden opportunity for revitalization of Iraq’s foreign relations as there are shared interests between the US, Iraq and the Gulf states, which can solve Iraq’s dire economic, security and energy dilemma. It comes at a time when Iraq is in dire need of help. Al-Kadhimi promised sweeping reforms and the best prospect for Iraq to claw its way out of economic and financial ruin, improve its poor infrastructure, root out corruption, effectively respond to coronavirus, and to rein in Shia militias is to align itself with the US and its allies, namely the Arab Gulf states.
Men work at Rumaila oilfield in Basra, Iraq, May 11, 2017. (Reuters)
The US and Iraq’s final communique statement has shown a glimpse of hope as both are committed to continuing cooperation with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states and the GCC Interconnection Authority on Iraq. Although Iraq’s relationship with the GCC member states has improved since Haider al-Abadi’s government from 2014 to 2018, Iraq’s current challenges require these ties to be developed to deliver rapid tangible outcomes.
Iraq now has the opportunity to build upon Iraqi-Saudi Coordination Council’s committees and principles that seek to improve bilateral relations on areas including energy, security, and finance.
At the summit, the US also backed a deal that would accelerate work to connect Iraq’s electricity grid to those of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as well as develop their energy cooperation including in the gas sector, according to the Wall Street Journal. Connecting Iraq to the Gulf grids would help pull Baghdad out of multiple problems the country faces on the power supply front.
With US meditation, Iraq can also further develop trade, technology and energy cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, which over the past few years has strategically invested in Iraq. The latest project amounts to over $3 billion to develop the gas sector in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Iran is not the answer
At present, the US has issued Iraq a sanctions waiver so that it can continue to import energy from Iran, but the US has meanwhile encouraged Iraq to increase its strategic cooperation with GCC states to reduce Iraq’s reliance on Iran’s energy, which has not solved Iraq’s poor electricity supply. The grievances of Iraqi protesters include chronically poor public services and electricity supply.
Iran cannot provide sustainable and reliable energy, and there are reports that indicate Iran has suffered electricity shortages. Moreover, power is used as political leverage, and on several occasions, Iran has cut electricity from Iraq, according to Oil Price.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia offered Iraq electricity at a quarter of the price that Iran demands and the Kingdom is developing a joint solar powered system to supply Iraq with electricity. Across Saudi Arabia’s southern border, the UAE has one of the most diversified energy supplies in the world. Iraq has the opportunity to benefit from these reliable energy resources and power technology.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Aug. 17, 2020. (AP)
From improving US-Iraq bilateral ties, the latter also stands to improve ties with America’s regional allies in the Gulf. Broadening economic and security ties with the US and the Gulf would shake off Iran’s interference in Iraq, including curbing pro-Iran militias’ power and combating ISIS in Iraq.
The obstacle for further developing multilateral ties among the US, Iraq and the Gulf states remains the pro-Iran militias in Iraq. Iran will not watch idly as Iraq slips from its influence and it will utilize all deep-rooted rapports with a number of Iraqi politicians, militia leaders and commanders to thwart the progress and assert Iran’s influence on policymaking.
During al-Kadhimi’s visit to DC, pro-Iran political factions such as Kata’ib Hezbollah called al-Kadhimi to discuss the US troops’ withdrawal. The Fatah Alliance also said they will rebuff US orders given to the Iraqi government. Amid the high-profile visit of a Saudi official to Baghdad, Kata’ib Hezbollah announced its rejection of the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia, Shafaaq reported.
Whether or not Iraq, the US and the Gulf will continue to strengthen their ties, will depend on how far the Iraqi government can push to follow up the meetings with actions and to implement reforms, provide services, rein in the Shia militias, and impede Iranian interference.
Another challenge is that al-Kadhimi’s government is a transitional government until next year’s snap election and is at the mercy of parliamentary political blocs, including the pro-Iran Fatah Alliance, which selected al-Kadhimi in May after two prime ministers were unable to form a Cabinet. Therefore, more consolidation of ties between Iraq and the US’s allies in the region is paramount as next year, the competition between Iraqi political elites and factions will mount and Iran will try to secure its interests.
The successful Iraq-US summit provided a thrust to the shuttle diplomacy between Iraq and Arab neighboring countries as on August 27 Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan al-Saud visited Baghdad to reaffirm the commitments of previous agreements and discussed the US Iraq summit and Iraq’s tripartite summit in Amman. Al-Kadhimi referred to Saudi Arabia as a “true partner.” This shows both sides’ willingness to improve relations.
However, it is now time for Iraq’s policy makers to get serious and follow-up with their commitments. US-Iraq-Gulf relations are critical for Iraq’s stability and prosperity, but al-Kadhimi must do more to make good on his promises to root out corruption and rein in the pro-Iran militias.
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