What could the US-Iraq talks yield?

There are doubts and questions swirling on all fronts as US and Iraqi officials brace for talks to charter a new course, writes Salah Nasrawi

Next week the world will watch Iraqi and US officials meeting in Washington to hammer out agreements on how for the two countries going forward as Iraq is mired in political chaos and the Trump administration remains at a dangerous crossroad in the Middle East.

There have been plenty of speculations about the talks, their goals, and the purposes and the interests they serve. Questions also have been raised on whether adequate preparations have been made for the meeting.

The talks which have been dubbed a “strategic dialogue” is scheduled for mid-June and the future of the US military presence in Iraq is expected to top high on the table with an official agenda has yet to be worked out.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who broke the news of the dialogue on 7 April said the talks were a US proposal and will cover “all strategic issues between our two countries.” He said that will also include “how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq.”

Iraq’s former Foreign Minister, Mohammed Ali al-Hakim said his office had received a letter from the State Department “suggesting procedures for negotiations based on the concepts in the Strategic Framework agreement.”

Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi discussed briefly the upcoming negotiations with Pompeo but his office disclosed no details about their brief telephone conversation following his endorsement by the parliament on 6 May.

While it is still hard to know exactly the possible approaches each sides will be taking to address the increasingly hard issues in the Iraqi-US relations, the talks will likely provide a perspective for the possible trajectory of their future ties.

Reading into Pompeo’s remarks and a statement by the US embassy in Baghdad, Washington seems to be setting a sort of guidelines for a strategic US-Iraqi partnership placed on a stable and long-term footing.

Under such a perspective, Washington is probably looking for a framework for its relations with Baghdad which is capable of maintaining the current level of cooperation and preserving a functional order for the future.

Moving beyond press-release diplomacy, however, multiple questions remain about how the Trump Administration can resolve serious issues that have been bedeviling US-Iraqi relationships and move the ball forward.

For a starter, the United States has to face up to Iran, the active regional power in Iraq after years of US policy failure which has turned the Islamic Republic to a key player in the country’s affairs and a Middle East powerhouse.

A major win for the United States in the upcoming talks will have to come directly from its efforts to apply concerted diplomatic, economic, and military pressure to constrain Iran and its allies in Iraq.

Washington should assume that this would be part of its “Maximum pressure” on Iran and that America’s confrontational posture is diminishing Iran’s influence in Iraq and would help to empower the anti-Iran forces and US Iraqi allies.

But in order to achieve that goal Washington should have a clear, comprehensive and functional strategy in Iraq in addition to another grand strategy in the Middle East and concrete plans to implement them.

Apart from lacking a viable strategy, miscalculations and political blunder by successive US administrations have created a geopolitical void in Iraq and the region that helped Iran’s influence to surge.

A critical first step towards creating some form of lasting US-Iraqi relationship is to help Iraq get back on its feet, a mission the United States has failed to fulfill after its invasion of the country in 2003.

American ME pundits have been making proposals to the administration with regard to the upcoming talks which focus primarily on the size of the US troops in Iraq which American negotiators should discuss with their Iraqi counterparts.

The discussions among the league of US Iraq’s experts is whether Washington should keep the same level of the combat assistance mission in Iraq, or maintain a small force of military advisers to help train and develop Iraqi military capabilities.

Yet, for the United States to help Iraq defend itself it should retake the responsibility it has abandoned in helping Iraqis rebuilding their state and their nation fractured by its own invasion and mishandling of its occupation of Iraq.

If Washington is keen to have a constructive “strategic dialogue” with Iraq it should start with engaging in state and nation-building efforts in Iraq, an obligation it has long ignored in favour of the “no strategy” and “non-decision” the successive US administrations have adopted in Iraq.

The upcoming talks should, therefore, focus on forging a stable strategic partnership — one that will not center on countering threats from extremism and Iran but helping Iraqis to fix the failed state that has become a breeding ground for terrorism and Iran’s intervention. 

A US approach in the talks should start with a new playbook for bilateral relations that seeks to upgrade the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) which was intended to shape “the legal, economic, cultural and security relations between the two countries.”

The 2008 agreement which states that the US should work to “support and strengthen Iraq’s democracy and its democratic institutions and enhance Iraq’s capabilities” suffers from both clarity gaps and mechanism on how to be put things in action.

For Pompeo’s words that the dialogue is to show “how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq” to be meaningful, Washington should now seek a new assertive and reliable framework for this new phase of Iraqi-US relationships cohered into the outlines of a longer-term strategic cooperation.

For Iraq’s part, it is a time of choosing – continue to be a playground for regional tension, conflicts, international powers’ ambitions and terrorism or open a new chapter of opportunity to achieve stability and sovereignty? 

The “strategic dialogue” with Washington could be a rare opportunity for Iraq to break free from this vicious circle of Iran’s hegemony and effectively establish a solid position for itself in the world’s geostrategic environment and promote its own national interests.

Thus far, indecision has reigned in the Iraqi leadership, which is paralysed by inefficiency, corruption, political and sectarian divisions and competitive foreign and regional influences.

The core question for Iraqi policy-makers at this juncture is whether Baghdad should ask Washington to withdraw its troops from Iraq or seek to keep the troops in until Islamic State (IS) is completely defeated on the battlefield.

Iraqis are sharply divided on this issue which is expected to top the talks’ agenda with the internet ablaze with rumours, chatter and speculations about a US withdrawal, limited withdrawal or no withdrawal and the implications for both sides.

In January, the Iraqi parliament voted to remove US troops from Iraq. Some 168 members of 328-assembly endorsed a resolution submitted by Iran-backed Shia groups which specifically calls for expelling the US troops from Iraq.  

Most Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the session, which was held two days after the killing of General Qassem Soleimni, head of Iran’s Quds force in Baghdad by a US airstrike.

Sunni and Kurdish political leaders have repeatedly made it clear that they don’t want the US troops to leave for fear that Iran will fill vacuum and Iraq could be dragged down to chaos.

Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister at the time, said his government will work to implement parliament’s resolution. He also said that if US troops remains then they will be considered an occupying force.

Tehran-backed militias which have frequently attacked US interests in Iraq in the past also vowed to target some 5.550 US forces which they are believed to be in Iraq if they stay.

While al-Kahdimi’s government has yet to make its mind about its security needs from the US troops, it has also to tackle the accumulation of problems left by the former government as well as other challenges that emerged thereafter.

With coronavirus pandemic raging and plummeting oil revenues threatening Iraq’s economic collapse, its leadership will likely need help from outside sources to fix the country’s economic and financial woes.

In addition to direct assistance from Washington, Iraqi leaders realize that US support is essential for getting help from these sources such as the World Bank, Gulf Arab states, the European Union and the United Nations to confront its systemic difficulties.

More specifically, the Iraqi leadership needs a comprehensive strategy based on a careful assessment of both its needs and the US intents and purposes to negotiate a new deal with Washington that will guarantee Iraq’s rebuilding, a commitment overlooked by successive US administrations since 2003.

So far, the shallow rhetoric from both sides about the talks have little to show for this effort that it would successfully put Iraq on a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity?

How Baghdad and Washington resolve such a dilemma remains unclear while there’s little political and diplomatic infrastructure being adequately prepared for what may come from their “strategic dialogue.”