Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Welcome to Trump’s Iraq

How far will US President Donald Trump go in his policies on Iraq

Welcome to Trump’s Iraq
Welcome to Trump’s Iraq

Just hours before Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi met with US President Donald Trump in Washington last week, the leader of an Iran-backed Shia militia in Iraq declared that his group wanted to have a say in the country’s politics following the anticipated liberation of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) militants.

The remarks by Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the powerful Ashab Al-Haq group, came amid reports that both Iran and the Shia militias would be high on the agenda of Al-Abadi’s talks in Washington with Trump which were expected to focus on a post-Mosul strategy.

Power struggles between ethnic and sectarian groups in Iraq are widely feared after the liberation of Mosul from IS, with many expecting that this could trigger a remapping of Iraq and probably its end as a unitary state.

The battle to recapture the last IS stronghold in Iraq has now entered its final phase, and expectations are high that US-backed Iraqi forces could clear the city by mid-April.

“After our military successes, we should achieve our political victory,” Al-Khazali told a crowd of supporters in Baghdad on 19 March. “Without the Hashd, the [Iraqi] military could not have made these successes,” he said, using the Arabic word for the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), the umbrella organisation of the Shia militias.

Al-Khazali’s, and Iran’s, message was loud and clear, and it must have reverberated throughout Al-Abadi’s talks in Washington and later in a meeting of the 68-nation International Coalition fighting against IS.

Many of the Arab partners in the US-led Coalition have demanded that the PMF should be disbanded, accusing it of being sectarian.

Iraq’s Sunnis and neighbouring Arab Sunni nations have also been voicing concerns about Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq. They hope that under Trump’s presidency the United States will work to stifle Iran’s role in Iraq and push for more Sunni inclusion.

As expected, Trump did not miss the opportunity of the talks with Al-Abadi to dial up his rhetoric against Iran. In his opening remarks, Trump singled out Tehran and its nuclear programme as a US foreign relations priority.

“One of the things I did ask is why did president Obama sign that agreement with Iran, because nobody has been able to figure that one out. But maybe someday we’ll be able to figure it out,” he told Al-Abadi and his accompanying delegation, referring to the nuclear deal with Iran that was signed during the previous Obama administration.

In later bilateral talks, US Vice-President Mike Pence also made it clear to Al-Abadi that Iran remained a priority for the Trump administration, saying that it considers Iran to be a “threat” across the entire region.

“The United States and Iraq align in countering terrorism. Neither will allow any country to destabilise Iraq or its democratic institutions,” a statement by the White House quoted Pence as saying.

Powerful members of the US Congress foreign relations committee who are expected to play a key role in forging Washington’s new strategy in Iraq also reminded Al-Abadi of “Iran’s destabilising activities” in Iraq during a meeting.

Yet, from Al-Abadi’s perspective the goal of last week’s visit to the US was to improve relations between Baghdad and Washington, with a special emphasis on military and economic ties.

During his discussions with the administration, Congress leaders and officials from a number of international institutions and organisations, Al-Abadi stressed the need to support Iraq militarily as well as financially in order to defeat IS and start rebuilding towns and cities taken back from the group.

But by the end of Al-Abadi’s three-day visit, many details of his talks with US officials remained vague, raising serious questions about Trump’s policy in Iraq which he has promised will replace that of his predecessors presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama.

After his inauguration as president in January, Trump gave the Pentagon 30 days to develop a plan to defeat IS in line with his campaign promises to dramatically ramp up assaults on the group.

Reports suggest that Trump strategists are looking at a regional approach to the conflict in Iraq that would leverage the common threats posed by Iran. They are also looking for an agreement on the daunting challenges Iraq is expected to face after the liberation of Mosul, especially stabilising the newly liberated areas and seeking reconciliation and national healing.

Rumours in Middle East diplomatic circles have suggested that a new American strategy in Iraq will require a realignment of directions currently taken by Al-Abadi’s government on several key issues, among them the role of Iran in Iraq and the future of the country’s Sunni community in return for a closer relationship with the US and support in the anti-IS drive.

But the quest for such a joint approach for post-IS Iraq between the country’s Shia-led government and the Trump administration may be futile or even delusional.

There are good reasons why many remain sceptical about the suggested US post-IS strategy in Iraq, given the complexity of the situation in the country and the Trump team’s vision for a larger regional deal.

Core problems in Trump’s approach to Iraq have been highlighted by Al-Abadi’s visit to Washington, first among them the fact that although Trump has said that his administration will be “more engaged in fighting terrorism” his administration has done virtually nothing so far to work out a plan with the Iraqis to root out the IS group once and for all.

“I haven’t seen a full plan,” Al-Abadi told an event at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), a think tank, after his meeting with Trump. “We have our own plan, but we need to have a plan together. The region must have a plan to wipe out terrorism” he said.

Second, clear disagreements emerged during the visit between Al-Abadi and the US administration over Iran, which Trump described as “rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq.” The Iraqi Shia leader categorically refused to see Iraq involved in any US effort to take on Iran.

“I know there are regional conflicts there, and there are tendencies to derail our confrontation with IS and get busy with some other problems, but I will stand against those,” he said.

What is radical about the US approach is that it aims to drive a wedge between the Iraqi Shia-led government and its strategic partner Iran. Any attempt to force Baghdad to scale down its ties with Tehran will be futile, however, because the Iraqi Shias are dependent on Iran.

Third, although Al-Abadi promised in Washington that he would use his power as commander-in-chief of the Iraqi security forces to reign in the PMF, this has fallen short of expectations by the Trump team that he will demobilise the group.

Al-Abadi praised the PMF as volunteers “who fought with their lives to protect the country and the people of Iraq.” His message could have been intended to create a different situation regarding the PMF, but confronting the powerful paramilitary force could be a very big deal.

The idea of disbanding the PMF is fraught with problems and obstacles. It has become a major force, and any attempt to delegitimise it will trigger a backlash among the Shia militias that are the backbone of the force.

Fourth, Al-Abadi also seemed to be non-committal regarding the suggestion of more power-sharing with Iraq’s Sunnis and the prospect of creating a semi-autonomous Sunni region after Mosul is retaken, an issue which was pressed publically by Congress members.

“To be inclusive is to take people as they are,” Al-Abadi told the USPI gathering, emphasising the Shia narrative of empowerment following the ouster of the Sunni-dominated regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by the US-led invasion in 2003.  

Both the Bush and the Obama administrations pushed hard for more inclusiveness for Sunnis in the government in Iraq, but their efforts ended in failure because the country’s Shia leaders considered this as posing a threat to their majority status.

While the need to ensure that Iraq will remain stable after the IS defeat and that the country’s politics do not become a breeding ground for the rise of another militant group is as present as ever, no one can be sure that Trump’s approach will be feasible or workable.

As a result, Trump’s wish list runs the risk of pushing Iraqi further into confusion and chaos and probably even back into civil war and fragmentation.

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