The Forthcoming Iraqi-American Strategic Dialogue: Complicated Priorities and Thorny Issues

Firas Elias | 03 Jun 2020

On 7 April 2020, US Secretary of State Mark Pompeo said in a statement that his country “has proposed holding a strategic dialogue with the government of Iraq to be held in middle of June” and that “it will be the first review of all issues pertaining to the US-Iraq relations, including the future presence of US forces in the country”. This call for dialogue between Baghdad and Washington comes in the context of the growing tension on Iraqi territory between the US on the one hand, and Iran and its proxy Iraqi loyalist factions on the other, and after the Iraqi House of Representatives issued, early January 2020, a decision committing the government to evacuating foreign troops from Iraq in response to the assassination by the US of the Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and the deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee (al-Hashed al-Shaabi) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The call also comes amidst the suffering by Iraq from an overall health, social and economic crisis as a result of the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic and the likelihood of the collapse of the Iraqi economy as a result of the decline in oil revenues. This drives the governments of the two countries to “work together to stop any reversal of the gains . . . made in . . .  efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the country”.[1]

It can be said that the US call to hold a strategic dialogue with Iraq may express a US tendency to overcome the lack of strategic vision towards Iraq. Accordingly, the forthcoming strategic dialogue is expected to discuss a number of important files for both countries that are not confined to the US military presence. Thus, the results that may come out of the dialogue could have implications on the Iraqi scene as well as the regional environment.

US priorities

Since the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and under the security agreement between the US and Iraq and the Strategic Framework Agreement on the Status of US Forces in Iraq signed between both countries in 2008, the US strategy in Iraq has focused on dealing with three issues associated with the Iraqi security and the wider regional security.

The first of those issues was countering al-Qaeda and its successor ISIS. Despite the military defeat of ISIS  and regaining control over most areas that were controlled by the organization in northern and western Iraq by late 2017 ‒ an effort in which the US played an effective role through the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and in coordination with the Iraqi security forces ‒ the current repeated attacks by the organization indicate that there is more that the US needs to do in Iraq.[2] Military estimates released by the US Department of Defense in 2019 indicate that the number of ISIS operatives ranges between 14,000 and 18,000 fighters, distributed over a geographical area that encompasses the Iraqi and Syrian maps. In addition, the number of attacks by ISIS operatives increased lately to reach nearly 60 attacks per month, ranging between armed attacks, detonating improvised explosive devices (IEDs), banditry, and the temporary control of military headquarters.[3] Therefore, the US role in eliminating the ISIS cells and remnants is expected to be present on the agenda of the forthcoming strategic dialogue between Baghdad and Washington.

The second issue relates to Iran’s role in Iraq. Since 2003, Iraq has become a major arena for strategic rivalry between the US and Iran. The US made great efforts to contain Iranian influence in Iraq. The US sensed the danger of Iranian expansion in Iraq at the post-ISIS stage, and realized the importance of preventing the armed factions run by Iran from hegemonising the security system and the political structure in Iraq and rendering Iraq a part of Iran’s strategy for regional hegemony, including converting Iraq into a bridge connecting Iran with Syria and Lebanon.[4] In addition, Iran exploits Iraq to be a lung through which it can breathe economically and ease the impact of US sanctions. After the Iranian-US escalation on Iraqi territory since late 2019, Iran has set a target for its policy in Iraq that focuses on evacuating US troops from Iraq. By relying on its allied political and military Shiite powers, Iran has forced the troops of the Global Coalition, including US troops, to reduce their presence and re-position in Iraq.[5]

The third issue relates to the Popular Mobilization (al-Hashed al-Shaabi), particularly the factions loyal to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (specifically the five major factions: Hezbollah Brigades, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Al-Nujaba Movement, Sayyid al-Shuhada Battalions, and the Imam Ali Battalions).[6] These loyalist factions constitute one of the main security challenges facing the US forces in Iraq since 2018. Those factions have taken it upon themselves to launch attacks on US forces and interests in Iraq which forced the US to respond to those attacks more than once. The most violent response was the air attack carried out by US forces in the perimeter of Baghdad International Airport on 3 January 2020, which led to the killing of the commander of the Iranian Quds Force Qasem Soleimani and the deputy chairman of the Popular Mobilization Committee (al-Hashed al-Shaabi) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. This shifted the US-Iran conflict in Iraq to a new stage of hot confrontation. The issues of rectifying the status of the Hashed al-Shaabi and mechanisms of regulating the loyalist factions are expected to be widely discussed in the forthcoming strategic dialogue.

Rising security threats and limited military capabilities

Iraq needs a new strategy to build large and strong military forces that would be sufficient to counter the security challenges stemming from ISIS and from not confining the possession of arms to the state, and also to secure Iraq’s borders with Syria, Turkey and Iran. Therefore, the forthcoming strategic dialogue with the US could constitute an introduction to the re-assessment of the security relations between Iraq and the US so that the US would play a critical role in re-building Iraq’s military and security capabilities that have been depleted during the war against ISIS. According to US estimations, the Iraqi military forces need training and rehabilitation operations for a period of 3-5 years at least to be able to carry out their security tasks. Furthermore, Iraq needs to rebuild its armament system and to reactivate and maintain many of the military bases.

In addition to the above, the Iraqi air force remains very small and limited. While it has some US-made F-16 jets, it has just started to develop modern air combat capabilities. Iraq would not have defeated ISIS without the support of the US-led Global Coalition aircraft which carried out 78,033 sorties, in addition to 43,581 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties in Iraq and Syria during the war years against ISIS (2015-2018), and 13,694 sorties and 13,377 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties in 2019.[7]

In addition to all the above, Iraq does not have air defence weapons, advanced missile systems, an air warning and surveillance system or air defence land capabilities, which are important military capabilities to deal with any external threats. The Iraqi military establishment also needs more functional integration at the military action level. Presently, there are three major military forces on the ground, namely the Iraqi army, the Popular Mobilization (al-Hashed al-Shaabi), and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Until now, those forces have not shown functional integration in the official security action.[8]

Doubtlessly, developing the Iraqi military capabilities will be paralysed if the US decides to withdraw at any one time without a strategic commitment that links its relations with Iraq. The US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 had led to significant ruptures experienced by the Iraqi army in the face of ISIS attacks in 2014. When the US decided to return to Iraq in 2016, it helped in defeating the organization and had other achievements on the ground.

Mutual future requirements

The US is aware that obtaining broad and important commitments from the government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi might set the scene for a more effective US role in the Iraqi arena, particularly in terms of the commitments related to the safety of US military forces present in Iraq and protecting US interests against any future threats that could come from Iran and its allies in Iraq. Most importantly, the US is aware of the importance of putting pressure on Iraq to find an alternative to the energy resources it needs from Iran as the continued import by Iraq of energy from Iran has greatly undermined the policy of the US sanctions imposed on Iran, something that Iran has used and will seek to maintain during the upcoming period.

Furthermore, the new threats posed by the return of the recent ISIS attacks have driven the US to think of the future implications of those attacks, particularly in light of the circumstances that paved the way for the return of ISIS. The complicated health situation experienced by Iraq today, which coincides with an economic crisis as a result of the decline in oil prices, in addition to the structural conflicts experienced by the Popular Mobilization (between the pro-Iran Mobilization and the pro-Sistani Mobilization), and the suspension by the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS of its military operations towards the end of March 2020 on the pretext of the corona pandemic are all factors that rendered the current Iraqi environment fragile from the security perspective. That is why the US looks forward to cutting a new deal with Iraq through the forthcoming strategic dialogue or developing new security arrangements.

As a matter of fact, Iraq also looks forward to meeting a number of strategic needs and interests in the upcoming period. The government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi needs to obtain strategic commitments from the US to counter real challenges in the upcoming period, mainly dealing with the rickety economy, dissipating the returning ISIS ghost, dissociating Iraq from the impact of the US-Iran conflict, and enabling Iraq politically and militarily to enhance sovereignty and independence in the political decision.

The questions being raised are the following: will the dialogue be confined to the security aspect, or will it be broad-based and comprehensive? Will the dialogue give birth to a new strategic agreement? Will Iraq be a strategic partner or just a regional side that has a stable relationship with the US?

It should be mentioned in advance that multiple challenges face the success of the forthcoming strategic dialogue, including some that stem from the Iraqi and US domestic environments, and others that are regional and international. The dialogue should take into account the challenges that can be posed by Iran and its allies, in addition to other international powers such as Russia and China. Every one of these regional and international powers has its own reasons that would drive it to hamper any efforts aiming at undermining its interests or goals, whether in Iraq or in other Middle Eastern countries. Any security agreement or arrangement stemming from this dialogue will not be limited to Iraq; rather, its results will also encompass the regional and international environments. This entails more burdens for Iraq and the US.

Even if the forthcoming strategic dialogue gives rise to establishing real foundations for balanced strategic relations between Iraq and the US, Iraq would mainly continue to be required to take responsibility for reforming its political process, troubled economy, and fragile security situation. It has to realize that foreign aid (US and international) will be limited in the post-corona world, considering that most countries of the world will focus on saving their own economies from recession due to the implications, effects and dynamics of the pandemic. This would increase the inhibitors of success that can stand in the face of this dialogue.

What can each side offer the other?

Presumably, many issues will be discussed by both parties in the forthcoming strategic dialogue, mainly combating ISIS, containing the influence of Iran, loyalist factions and others, and, more importantly, the future of the US military presence in Iraq. The significant fluctuations presently experienced by the Iraqi-US relations will make the dialogue or negotiation more difficult, considering the internal and external developments that govern the directions of this dialogue. Thus, coming out with clear results that would serve the bilateral relations between the two countries will require more consensus and courage.

Therefore, mutual commitments can be said to govern the agenda of the Iraq-US strategic dialogue. At the US level:

1- The US should seek to preserve Iraqi national unity, efforts made to minimize reasons of ethnic and sectarian division, as well as efforts to encourage the formation of a government that is characterized by integrity and effectiveness. However, the US should refrain from any effort to drive Iraq to adopt political and security arrangements that do not correspond with the capabilities of the Iraqi political system.

2- The US should support economic assistance to Iraq as an incentive for progress. This assistance should be conditional on the political and economic reform steps taken by Baghdad. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said early May 2020 that the US should make the US assistance and support conditional on Iraqi good leadership and integrity. The monetary flow should depend on the credibility and effectiveness of Iraqi officials in using US assistance in Iraqi development projects.

3- The recent Iraqi government measures, specifically in the Counter-Terrorism Service, through the quick move by Mr. Mustafa al-Kadhimi to reshape the Service leadership and appoint a very prominent nationalist name as Interior Minister, in addition to supporting the leaders of the Holy Shrines Brigades and the Najaf religious authority in their protest against the monopoly by the Iranian-backed loyalist factions within the Popular Mobilization of influential leadership posts within the Popular Mobilization Committee, mainly intelligence, central security and doctrinal-religious orientation, were all considered encouraging indications. They also constituted a positive message to the US that was explicitly expressed by the US ambassador to Baghdad. These measures could be expanded in the days to come to include regulating the movement of many armed factions that have undermined the state’s sovereignty through reforming the security sector in Iraq. The transfer by many factions loyal to the Najaf authority of their staff from the Popular Mobilization Committee to the Ministry of Defence may encourage other factions to follow suit, through incentives and support and rehabilitation programmes carried out by the Iraqi government. The US and the European Union (EU) can certainly play an effective role in this respect. This could eventually facilitate re-institutionalizing the Popular Mobilization along pure Iraqi national lines, away from Iranian influence and interests.[9]

4- There has to be a clear vision regarding the nature of the US military presence in Iraq, particularly that many pro-Iranian powers and armed factions are sensitive to this presence as a “foreign occupation”. While there are multiple alternatives that could be resorted to for easing this sensitivity, including the activation of the role of the NATO or the Iraqi-US joint command, concentrating efforts on developing Iraqi military, security and intelligence capabilities might produce a strong Iraqi-US security partnership, without the need for a direct military presence that could expose Iraqi sovereignty to many violations or expose US interests to continuous dangers.

5- The US has to assist the Iraqi government in enhancing governance, supporting anti-corruption programmes and holding the corrupt to account.

At the Iraqi level, reference can be made to the following:

1- The need for the existence of a clear Iraqi national vision in determining the main goals expected from the dialogue.

2- Iraq has to underline to the US side its rejection of being an arena for direct or indirect confrontation with Iran and to reach with the US side a common vision of the nature of dealing with the Iranian situation in Iraq.

3- Iraq has to share with the US side Iraq’s security and intelligence needs within the framework that would serve to undermine the efforts of ISIS to endanger Iraq’s national security and in such a manner as to strengthen the capabilities of Iraqi official security services as an introduction to enabling Iraq militarily in the future and achieving a greater balance with Iran.

4- Iraq has to make further efforts within the framework of regulating the movement of pro-Iran loyalist factions in a manner that would restore Iraq’s image as a country capable of extending its legal dominion over all national territory, through numerous measures that the Iraqi government should seek to take, and in a manner that would reduce US fears in this respect.

5- Iraq should develop a single plan for channels of military cooperation with the US to enhance the capabilities of the Iraqi army and not just the capabilities of special operations forces, through two long-term programmes for training and enhancing combat efficiency, and armament.

To sum up, the forthcoming Iraq-US strategic dialogue constitutes a challenge for both countries in terms of mapping out the features of a sustainable strategic relationship that would serve their goals and interests and help in bringing peace and stability to the region.

Endnotes

[1] See: “The future of the US forces in Iraq: a dialogue between Washington and Baghdad in June”, Alhurra, 7 April 2020. Available at: https://arbne.ws/2MmXLpa

[2] Michael Knights, "U.S. Interests and the Unsustainable Status Quo in Iraq," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 12 Nov 2019, at: https://bit.ly/2LozNcL (Date of Entry: 13 May 2020).

[3] "Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response," Congressional Research Service, 12 Feb 2020, at: https://bit.ly/3bqqoM9 (Date of Entry: 13 May 2020).

[4] Martin S. Indyk, "U.S. strategy toward Iran, The Brookings Institution," 28, Mar 2017, at:  https://brook.gs/2yHlPjt  (Date of Entry: 13 May 2020).

[5] See: “The Global Coalition withdraws from the sixth military base in Iraq”. Sputnik, 7 April 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2XN7avs

[6] Michael Lipin, Rikar Hussein, "Pro-Iran Shiite Militias in Iraq Expanding Despite Iraqi Leaders' Efforts to Curtail Them," Voanews, 22 Sep 2019, at: https://bit.ly/2T1GEwQ (Date of Entry: 13 May 2020).

[7] U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Airpower Summaries, at: https://bit.ly/2Wqa7m6 (Date of Entry: 13 May 2020).

[8] Anthony H. Cordesman, "Strategic Dialogue: Shaping a U.S. Strategy for the “Ghosts” of Iraq," The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 22 April 2020, at: https://go.aws/2WJNdpT (Date of Entry: 16 May 2020).

[9] Michael Knights, "Kadhimi as Commander-in-Chief: First Steps in Iraqi Security Sector Reform," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Watch 3317, 19 May 2020, at: https://bit.ly/2XRVgk6 (Date of Entry: 23 May 2020).

 

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