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Cracks in Iraqi-US relations

Cracks in Iraqi-US relations

Last week’s visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to Washington highlighted the widening gulf in the Iraqi-US partnership, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi stunned the Obama administration during a visit to Washington last week when he told journalists that the White House was unhappy with the Saudi-led military campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen which he warned could engulf the Middle East in war.

Al-Abadi’s criticism of the US-backed Saudi airstrikes in Yemen and his claims of the White House’s dissatisfaction with the mission prompted a swift denial from the Obama administration and the Saudi ambassador in Washington Adel Jubeir.

Whether scripted or not, Al-Abadi’s comments have underlined serious problems in the Iraqi-US relationship and have far-reaching implications for how Washington is engaged in Iraq’s political and security crises.

Since the US troop pullout in 2011, the Iraqi-US relationship has had many ups and downs but has worked largely by disguising key differences over several intertwined issues, mostly leftovers from the era of the decade-long US occupation of the country.

But many of the new disputes, which centre around broader regional policies and approaches to resolving and managing regional conflicts, seem to have made the Iraqi-US relationship more lopsided, and thus more fraught, than ever before.

While in Washington Al-Abadi took aim at the Saudi-led military campaign against the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen. He explained his worries that Saudi airstrikes might be a precursor for a more assertive Saudi military role in neighbouring countries, including Iraq.

Ordinarily, this should not have bothered Washington, which is committed by the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement with Baghdad to help strengthen “security and stability in Iraq” and enhance its ability “to deter all threats against its sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.”

But Al-Abadi’s remarks seemed to have gone too far in unravelling the paradox in Iraqi-US relations and underscoring the Obama administration’s fractured and even contradictory Middle East policies.

For Al-Abadi and the rest of the Iraqi Shia, the US’s expanding role in Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthis in Yemen is not helpful either in combating terrorism in the region or in easing mounting Shia-Sunni tensions.

For the Iraqi Shia, US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen looks like a tale of hypocrisy that rules the world.

What is puzzling to the Iraqi Shia-led government is that while US President Barack Obama has called on the Gulf nations to use their influence on Libya’s warring factions to help resolve the chaotic situation there, US drones flying over Yemen transmit the information that Gulf jetfighters use to attack targets in Yemen.

Obama’s invitation to the leaders of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies for a meeting at Camp David next month “to discuss ways to enhance partnership and deepen security cooperation” may also increase the Iraqi Shia-led government’s fears about Washington’s gamble.

One of the scenarios for the upcoming summit is that the United States may propose to help the Saudi-led camp to acquire a similar status to Iran, both with an internationally recognised nuclear programme and a reinforced regional posture.

This feared scenario, if materialised, could initiate a trilateral relationship between the US, Iran and the Saudi-led camp that Washington will hope will ensure regional equilibrium and enhance stability.

But such a perception ignores the fact that the dynamics of Arab-Iranian relations are further complicated by historical, nationalistic and sectarian enmities and regional competition.

Worse, without regional institutions to achieve its goals it remains questionable whether such an innovation on the multilateral front would amount to something that could usefully be considered as the basis for new regional arrangements.

In this regard, Iraq’s concerns remain immediate and focused. Al-Abadi’s warning in Washington about Iraq being within the radar of Saudi Arabia was actually a message to the Obama administration that it needs to be more sensitive to concerns that its approach to Saudi Arabia could turn the conflict in Yemen into an all-out regional sectarian war.

Furthermore, it could encourage the kingdom to launch a similar campaign against Iraq or Syria.

Another sign of fissures between the Iraqi Shia-led government in Baghdad and Washington is over differences in conducting the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Iraq.

Since it started some ten months ago when IS captured vast swathes of territory in the country, the two sides have sharply differed on policies and the military strategies needed to beat IS and take back the land.

While Obama suggested a military strategy of airstrikes to “degrade and ultimately destroy IS” coupled with a political approach that called for Sunni inclusion in Iraq, the Baghdad government resorted to Shia Iran for help in battling IS.

Iran has been supporting Iraq with weapons, intelligence and training in the battles. But its main contribution has been in mobilising its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to build a massive Iraqi Shia paramilitary force that has been effective in regaining control over Iraq’s Sunni provinces.

While the United States sees the Iranian involvement in the fighting in Iraq as possibly turning the war on terrorism into a sectarian war, the Iraqi government has criticised the “slow tempo” of the US airstrikes and their ineffectiveness.

Iraq complains of a lack of US intelligence and weapon supplies to the Iraqi security forces. Its main concern remains that the US military strategy to combat IS is not working and has even created further confusion in Iraq.

During Al-Abadi’s visit to Washington a key difference surfaced when Al-Abadi told reporters that the next step in military operations against IS fighters would be to try to roll them back in Iraq’s western Anbar Province.

In contrast, US top brass general Martin Dempsey said defending Ramadi, the Anbar provincial capital, was of secondary importance compared with protecting the Beiji oil refinery from IS militants, a stance even some Republicans in the US have criticised as minimising setbacks.

Earlier, the two sides had differed publically on when a military push to retake the northern strategic city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, would take place. Again, US officials expressed concerns about the role of the Iran-backed militias in the offensive, while the Iraqis insisted that they should be in control of the timetable and tactics in the battle to retake Mosul.

The disagreements have been costly as Iraq has had to delay an offensive to take back Anbar following Washington’s insistence that the Shia paramilitary forces should not take part in order for the US to provide airpower support to the Iraqi troops.

As a result, the IS militants initiated a counter-offensive and seized more land in Ramadi this week, forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee Ramadi and triggering a fresh humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

Iraq’s security forces had to reorganise and bring reserves from the Shia-led Popular Mobilisation Force in order to halt the militants from further advancing in Ramadi and threatening Baghdad.

One more sign of Iraqi frustration with Washington has been the latter’s failure to support Baghdad with the kinds of weapons it needs to fight IS. While in Washington Al-Abadi kept telling the media that the Iraqi security forces needed American weapons such as tanks and warplanes “badly”.

Nevertheless, he returned to Baghdad empty-handed and with only a pledge from Obama for $200 million in humanitarian support for those displaced by IS onslaughts.

The United States may have adopted certain policies in Iraq and the Middle East, but the Obama administration’s approach can hardly be seen as reflecting the true reality of Iraq’s and the region’s complex politics.

Its main deficiency is that it has failed to understand the region as it really is.

The confusion it has created has divided people in Iraq and in the Middle East between those who believe that the administration’s strategy empowers the Shia militias in Iraq and Iran, and others who see Washington as an ally in the war against the Shia.

At no time since it withdrew its troops from Iraq has the United States seemed so undone as a strategic partner because of its poor policies.

If there is one simple way of describing the US attitude towards Iraq, it is in the Iraqi proverb: “I won’t feed you. And I won’t let you beg.” That can hardly maintain a partnership based on trust and confidence.

This article appeared  first in Al-Ahram Weekly on April 23, 2015