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Biden should step up US support of Iraq’s Kadhimi

Jan 26,2021 - Last updated at Jan 26,2021

Newly inaugurated President Joe Biden and a number of his top officials have a personal link to Iraq’s ongoing ordeal and they should make amends. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002, Senator Biden pushed to give then president George Bush the ominous authorisation to wage war against Iraq; one that proved to be a huge geopolitical plunder of the new millennium and one that continues to haunt millions of Iraqis today. In 2006, Biden suggested in a New York Times op-ed that Iraq should be partitioned along sectarian and ethnic lines. And as vice president to president Barack Obama, Biden supported the controversial and notorious rule of then Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki.

The Obama administration did little to push back against Iran’s growing meddling in Iraqi affairs. Only after Daesh took almost one third of the country did the US intervene militarily through an international coalition. Ironically, it fought side by side along Iran-backed militias known as Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) run by Iranian General Qassem Soliemani. As Daesh terrorists were run down, the US stood by as pro-Iranian militias emerged as powerful players in Iraqi politics; deepening the ethno-sectarian divisions that plagued the country.

Former president Donald Trump had one main goal in his mind; to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and reduce America’s dependence on the Middle East. By the time he left office, the number of US troops in Iraq had dropped to 2,500. The drawdown took place at a critical time for newly-appointed Prime Minister Mustapha Kadhimi, who came in the wake of popular uprisings against rampant corruption, poor public services and flagrant Iranian meddling. Kadhimi’s mission of curtailing the power of the PMU, stamping out corruption and leading the country towards fair elections became complicated when the Trump administration took out Soliemani and the head of the PMU early last year.

It is fair to say that the Trump administration viewed Iraq from one angle only; that it was part of its faceoff with Iran. The reality is much different. A day after Biden was sworn in as president a twin suicide bombing in a busy Baghdad market left more than 30 dead and 100 injured. It was the worst attack of its kind in more than three years. The massacre was claimed by Daesh. Two days later an ambush carried out by Daesh killed 11 members of the PMU north of Baghdad. The message was clear; Daesh was making a comeback.

During his election campaign and afterwards Biden never mentioned Iraq. His top foreign policy team, including his choice for Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, know Iraq well. And yet little is known about Biden’s vision for the US relation with Iraq. In recent weeks, pro-Iran militias have launched rocket attacks against the US embassy in Baghdad and military bases where American troops are based. In the waning days of the Trump administration the US had threatened to close its embassy in Baghdad. That would have been a big mistake.

Instead, the Biden administration must top Iraq on its Middle Eastern agenda. The country is going through a critical phase with the resurgence of Daesh, the growing Iranian influence and the possibility of Iraq turning into a failed state. The latter would affect the national security of Iraq’s neighbours, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. One cannot deal with the Iraqi challenge without turning towards the Syrian crisis, Turkey’s incursion in the north and Iranian attempts to push back against US presence in Iraq.

The US must separate between its confrontation with Iran and Iraq’s complicated internal problems. Yes, Iran’s growing influence in Iraqi affairs is a big challenge, but there are other issues facing the current Iraqi government that must be addressed. Kadhimi is trying to restructure Iraq’s security bodies in a bid to limit Iranian influence and curtail outside meddling. He now faces a new threat; that of Daesh which has struck twice in two days in and near the capital. He is trying to prepare the political scene for a crucial October elections; one that would take Iraq away from the divisive ethno-sectarian divisions. It’s a tall order but he could not do it without active US involvement.

Biden’s Iraqi personal legacy notwithstanding, he needs to step up and invest in Kadhimi’s efforts. He, along with Iraqi President Barham Salih, is trying to implement a progressive non-sectarian, reformist and civilian path for Iraq. He has already earned the wrath of militant pro-Iranian militias for attempting to curtail their influence. He needs to have a strong ally on his side.

While Biden and his team appear to be focused on Iran’s nuclear deal as a priority, which is important, they should not take their eyes off what is happening in Iraq. Also Iraq’s Arab neighbours should push hard to support Kadhimi’s efforts. A collapse of Iraq will be catastrophic for the entire region.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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