Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1329, (26 January - 1 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq should get ready for Trump

Many Iraqis wanted US President Donald Trump to win last week’s presidential elections, but they may now be regretting it

Iraqi families are seen gathering on an area near Qayyarah  (photo: AFP)
Iraqi families are seen gathering on an area near Qayyarah (photo: AFP)

Just one day after his inauguration as the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump told the CIA that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group probably would never have existed if the United States had seized Iraq’s oilfields after its invasion of the country in 2003.

“But, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance,” Trump declared on Saturday while visiting the CIA headquarters on his first day in office, ushering in a new and unpredictable era in US policy towards Iraq.

Trump’s unsolicited remarks about keeping Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion were troubling because the new US president has made his views about Iraq abundantly clear, raising fears that he might start another war with Iraq to take its oil.

With huge uncertainty surrounding Trump’s foreign policy, it is too soon to know if he really means to invade Iraq again to get its oil, or if he is speaking with his usual rhetoric.

Yet, Iraqi officials seem to have taken notice of the new American president’s tough line during his election campaign, and probably they are not drawing the conclusion that this is just a Trump political football.

A few days before the inauguration, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi made a surprise announcement when he demanded a “thorough investigation” into the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Answering a reporter’s question at his weekly press conference on 17 January about his reaction to Trump’s statement a day before that the Iraq invasion was “the worst decision” ever made in American history, Al-Abadi said he would like to see a “thorough investigation” into Washington’s decision to “occupy” Iraq.

Al-Abadi’s comments were astonishing at a time when thousands of US soldiers are stationed in Iraq to fight alongside the Iraqi armed forces to drive IS militants from Mosul, the country’s second-largest city.

Moreover, the unexpected remarks come from a politician whose Shia Iraqi National Alliance could not have been empowered without the US-led invasion that toppled former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated regime.

“The US-led invasion of Iraq removed Saddam’s regime, but on the other hand it led to tragedies,” Al-Abadi said. The invasion, he emphasised, has unleashed chaos “that still persists in Iraq.”

The US occupation of Iraq opened the doors for “terrorist groups from all over the world to enter” the country, something Iraqis had “paid dearly” for, Al-Abadi suggested.

In a clear message to the Trump administration, Al-Abadi also said he hoped that “Iraqis will be compensated for the tragedies and catastrophes they have endured.”

It is unclear, however, if Al-Abadi’s remarks were deliberately timed to coincide with Trump’s inauguration, amid questions both in Iraq and the United States about what Trump’s presidency means for Iraq.

Soon after Trump’s election victory in November, many Iraqi politicians expressed the hope that Trump’s election would mean changes in the US strategy in Iraq, shaped by former US president Barack Obama and his predecessor George W Bush.

The high expectations were based on Trump’s election promises that he would work diligently to defeat IS. But Trump’s policy towards Iraq has remained unspecific.

During his election campaign, Trump strongly condemned the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In 2006, Trump condemned the Iraq War as “a total mess, a total catastrophe, and it’s not going to get any better. It’s only going to get worse.”

In Trump’s view, the Iraq invasion destabilised the Middle East, empowered Iran, and wasted trillions of US taxpayer dollars and thousands of American lives.

In comments on Iraq published by the London Times newspaper on 15 January, Trump described the Iraq invasion as “possibly the worst decision” ever made in American history. “It’s like throwing rocks into a beehive,” he said.

But as is the case with so many of Trump’s foreign policy statements, the answers to the questions about his intentions in Iraq have remained vague.

On the other hand, suggestions for an inquiry into the invasion and for compensating Iraqis are not new. The families of Iraqi victims and activists have tried to sue the United States government for war casualties and damage.

More than one million Iraqis are believed to have been killed as a result of the US-led invasion, and the subsequent occupation of the country. In addition to the human cost, the chaos and sectarian divisions triggered by the war were the background for the destruction of the Iraqi state and society. 

Last year, an Iraqi lobby said it had been encouraged by a US bill allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for damages to take action and push the Iraqi parliament into passing a law seeking compensation for the American invasion of the country.

But calls for probes into the US-led invasion of Iraq have largely gone unheeded.

A British enquiry into the war concluded last year that the invasion was “not justified.” The investigation, known as the Chilcot Inquiry, concluded that the Iraq invasion was based on “flawed” intelligence about the country’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.

Al-Abadi’s demands come at a time when Iraq’s military has been fighting for more than four months to oust IS from Mosul, which the militants have held since 2014.

US troops have deployed to support the Iraqi military with special operations forces, Apache helicopters, air controllers and others assigned to advise-and-assist roles.

Simultaneously, a last-minute spat by the outgoing US administration and Iraq’s Shia Vice-President Nuri Al-Maliki over Mosul’s seizure by IS militants fuelled more speculation about US-Iraqi relations under Trump.

Speaking to the Sky News Arabia TV network on 17 January, secretary of state in the Obama administration John Kerry accused Al-Maliki of being behind the IS rise in Iraq.

Kerry said Al-Maliki had contributed to the formation of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), which is largely seen as an umbrella for Iran-backed Shia militias, and he accused the group of weakening government security forces.

Al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister when IS captured Mosul and large swathes of land in Iraq, reacted angrily and accused the Obama administration of being responsible for the rise and spread of IS.

It is unclear how the controversies over Trump’s remarks about taking Iraq’s oil and Al-Abadi’s demands for an inquiry into the 2003 war and compensation for its damages will impact future relations between Baghdad and Washington.

But with the ascent of Trump to the US presidency, one key question remains to be answered by both governments: What role should the United States now have in Iraq?

US military commanders have said the US forces assisting Iraqi troops in their campaign to take back Mosul from IS will increase the number of US troops in the country.

Over 5,000 American soldiers are deployed in Iraq as part of an international coalition that is advising local forces in an attempt to curb the IS militants.

Iraqi forces have succeeded in taking the eastern side of Mosul, or about half of its territory, and they are expected to proceed deeper into the city, making the collapse of IS in Mosul only a matter of time.

In his inauguration speech, Trump promised to “eradicate Islamic terrorism completely from the face of the earth.” The Trump administration will now need to decide promptly if the defeat of IS in Mosul is to be the cue for a rapid drawdown of American forces from the country, or if it will commit additional US forces to wipe out the group.

Having pushed up their rhetoric against the US-led war in 2003, it is also difficult to predict how the policy of Iraqi officials towards Trump might evolve, especially if the new US president raises the stakes in Syria and Iran, two neighbouring countries whose crises leave significant impacts on Iraq.

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