BAGHDAD –Informed political sources in Baghdad said the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi received indications from Washington during the first round of strategic dialogue talks that it is willing to support a comprehensive development campaign in Iraq in exchange for cooperation in curbing the role of pro-Iranian militias.
The sources did not rule out the possibility that Washington is exploiting Iraq’s urgent need for external support to overcome its salary crisis that threatens to ignite another round of social unrest by pressuring Baghdad into going after Iran-linked Iraqi figures accused of corruption and terrorism
The sources said the United States is looking to increase its support to Iraq, but is wary of it falling into the wrong hands, even as there are indications that Kadhimi’s appointment as PM is a step in the right direction.
Despite Iraqi government figures’ optimism about the first round of the US-Iraq talks, observers warn that Washington could still introduce sanctions against Baghdad if it is convinced it is not seriously looking to disengage from Tehran.
The Iraqi premiere said that the outcome of Iraq’s dialogue with Washington will ultimately depend on the opinion of the religious authority and the parliament, as well as the needs of the state. He stressed that the talks are being conducted on the basis of mutual interests and will cover many issues, including on security, culture, economy and trade.
Meanwhile, Iraqi political and armed groups loyal to Iran have harshly criticised the Iraqi-American dialogue, hoping to undermine their success and further their own interests.
Hisham Dawood, a political advisor to Kadhimi, said the Iraqi-American dialogue sessions will continue for two days.
He said it would be “wrong to think of the United States as just a source of weapons,” noting that “the dialogue will discuss prospects for cooperation in the fields of economy, culture and agriculture, as well as the security and military files.”
Just after Dawood made the remarks early Wednesday, warning sirens sounded in the Green Zone in central Baghdad, as the US Embassy was apparently targeted by a short-range missile.
Dawood said that “Iraq will deal with the military part of the dialogue based on its sovereignty, and will try to bank on its distinguished relations with the United States in all fields,” stressing that “what is happening today, is just the beginning of a dialogue that will develop in the coming stages until it reaches higher levels.”
In a separate press conference, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasised the importance of the “strategic dialogue” between the United States and Iraq. He announced that his assistant for political affairs, David Hill, will head the American delegation, which will also include representatives from the ministries of defence, energy, treasury and other agencies.
“With the global COVID-19 pandemic raging and plummeting oil revenues threatening an Iraqi economic collapse, it’s important that our two governments work together to stop any reversal of the gains we’ve made in our efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the country,” Pompeo said. “All strategic issues between our two countries will be on the agenda, including the future presence of the United States forces in that country and how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq.”
Political sources in Baghdad said that the military and political escalation by parties and militias loyal to Iran reflects Tehran’s great concern over the US-Iraq talks.
Tehran fears that by engaging with Washington, Iraq will gain greater political independence and could stand against pro-Iranian militias in the country.
Iraqi official military sources reported that a Katyusha rocket had hit the Green Zone on Wednesday at dawn, with no casualties reported. The Green Zone in Baghdad houses embassies of major countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as the main compound for the presidency of the Iraqi government and the offices of the House of Representatives.
Witnesses said that fire broke out after the rocket landed on a building near the American embassy. Damages are still unknown.
This missile attack coincided with a coordinated campaign led by political groups to pressure the Iraqi negotiator to limit the dialogue to the issue of removing American forces from the country, a demand that tops Iran’s agenda in the region.
“The departure of foreign troops from Iraq and respect for its national sovereignty and supreme interests must top the files of the strategic dialogue between Iraq and the United States,” declared the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council, an organisation that was established by the Iranians in the 1980s and composed of Iraqi fighters fighting against the Iraqi army in the Iran-Iraq war.
This organization, which was accused of dominating the office of the resigned Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and managing the affairs of state through him, believes that the chances of a successful dialogue between Iraq and the United States “depend on the commitment of the Iraqi negotiating delegation to the national principles and the strategic interests of Iraq,” in a clear attempt to question the loyalty of a number of the members of the Iraqi delegation.
The now familiar strategy of questioning the loyalty of the Iraqi team was started by Iraqi journalists receiving funds and orders from the Islamic Radios and Televisions Union of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, to launch a smear campaign against members of the Iraqi negotiating delegation, accusing them of subordination to the United States and Israel.
The Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council, headed by Shiite cleric Hammam Hammoudi, groups some of the most prominent hawks of Shiite extremism, such as Baqir Jabr Solagh and Jalal al-Din al-Saghir. It has been insisting that “the topic of the departure of foreign forces” from Iraq must be “the focal point of the negotiations” between Baghdad and Washington, although the Iraqi government has repeatedly announced that the negotiations will cover economic and cultural cooperation as well as other fields.
The council had argued that it was important to “include military and security figures in the Iraqi delegation since the issue of the exit of foreign forces is the focus of negotiations,” noting that “in the event of any failure” of the negotiations, the government of al-Kadhemi and the members of the negotiating delegation “will bear the responsibility of that failure before the people, the parliament and the executive branch.”
In conjunction with the council’s statement, Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the so-called Alliance of Conquest, the largest gathering of political representatives from the pro-Iranian Shiite militias in the parliament of Iraq, called on members of his country’s delegation to “bear in mind the vote by the Iraqi House of Representatives requiring the departure of foreign forces from Iraq and the achievement of full national sovereignty.”
Al-Amiri warned that any “negligence, delay or failure, God forbid, will be a stigma of disappointment and setback in the history of the negotiating delegation and the history of Iraq.” “You’ll be bearing the blame of that failure forever, and we do not wish that for you,” he told the delegation.
An Iraqi official said that the Iraqi side does not have details about the number of American troops in Iraq, but “the US proposal mentions reducing the number of these troops.”
Nevertheless, this significant reduction appears to be highly unlikely, as the jihadist threat still exists in Iraq and the region, as also seen by other coalition countries that are not party to the US-Iraqi dialogue.
On the eve of the strategic dialogue between the two governments, General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command in the Middle East, expected that the Iraqi government would ask to keep an American military presence in the country to combat ISIS. “I think the government of Iraq will ask to keep American and coalition forces,” he said at an online seminar organised by a studies centre in Washington.
“As you know, from my point of view, we are in Iraq to accomplish the task of defeating ISIS and to support Iraq in the accomplishment of that task and achieve a final victory over it,” he added.
Amid increasing speculations about the outcomes of the dialogue, Robert Ford of the Middle East Institute considered that “the entire US-Iraqi relationship will not be redefined overnight.”
A former US diplomat who had participated in the last US-Iraq “strategic dialogue” of 2008, Ford added that “For the first time there are the right people in the right place at the right time.”
In the long term, the strategic dialogue can secure contracts for US companies in the areas of construction and energy and encourage aid from the Gulf or the World Bank.
But Ford asserts that “Washington cannot give money, but it can only offer not to apply its sanctions” that may deprive Iraq of its Iranian energy supplier, and that “does not solve Kadhimi’s top problem.”
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