This month, negotiations will begin between the Iraqi government and its American counterpart, as to the future of US forces in the Middle Eastern nation.
By Mustafa Habib, in Baghdad
Negotiations will be complicated and difficult, not least because of recent US attacks on Iranian military on Iraqi soil, as well as the ensuing retaliation against US soldiers in the country. In reality, these negotiations will come down to a tussle between US and Iranian interests.
Due to the heightened tension after those attacks, Shiite Muslim politicians voted in January that foreign forces that operate as part of the international coalition against the extremist group known as the Islamic State should withdraw from the country. However they did this in the absence of most Sunni Muslim and Kurdish politicians, who may well have voted differently.
The situation also looks very different to negotiations that took place in 2008, and which eventually led to the withdrawal of American forces in 2011.
Iraq has a new government, one that is far weaker than that which was in power in 2008. The country is also dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; infections are still on the rise in Iraq. Additionally the economic outlook is grim, as oil prices have fallen steeply – these are the funds that fill the government’s treasury and pay the wages of many Iraqis.
Popular protests, that started several months ago, are also continuing and may well be exacerbated by economic problems.
There is no doubt that, given current conditions, Iraq comes to the negotiating table in a weakened state.
Each country at the negotiating table – that is, Iraq, Iran and the US – has its own objectives.
Iraqis don’t want to see their country used as a base for foreign conflict, or to have it become the battleground where US and Iran work out their differences. Nor do Iraqis want to see the return of the extremist Islamic State group. They also want to enjoy continued support from their allies in politics, security and economically.
Iraq needs continued help in the military realm to do this, with both troop support, armaments and training. It also requires financial support as a major financial crisis looms – soon the government will no longer be able to pay millions of employees and pensioners, or do anything more about the dangerously high youth employment rate.
To ensure this, the government should provide guarantees that it will not allow Iran unlimited influence in the country. At the same time, Iraq must convince Iran that it will not unreservedly do the US’ bidding, or that of any other Western ally.
To achieve this, some difficult and bold actions should be taken.
The Iraqi government must reform the so-called Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU, military groups whose actions continue to be heavily influenced by Iran.
The government also needs to ensure that elections are held on time and in appropriate conditions, promising that the vote will be free of interference or fraud. This will not only help to gain the confidence of Iraqi protesters on the street but will give the Western world an ongoing reason to support Iraq, as the nation tries to shore up its democracy.
Iraqi leaders must support the rule of law and the work of their own electoral authorities – it could do this by engaging with international organisations like the United Nations, and ensuring that international governmental and non-governmental organisations are able to work unhampered in the country.
The Iraqi government should also present a realistic economic plan, one that both convinces the international community and its own people, that it can deal with upcoming financial challenges. The government should stop randomly appointing new staff, support the country’s private sector more effectively and come up with new laws that encourage more foreign investment.
Last week, Iranian religious leader Ali Khamenei said that his country’s explicit goal was to expel the US from Iraq altogether.
To do this, Iran must stop being so obvious about the influence it has in Iraq. It should prevent the Iraqi military forces it supports from targeting both the Iraqi government and the US troops.
For example, last week, yet another missile landed in the high security Green Zone in Baghdad, where foreign embassies, international staff and many Americans are housed. This was the first such attack since the formation of Iraq’s new government, and it only complicates the situation further.
The US will likely have one main goal, and that is to curtail Iranian influence in Iraq. To achieve this, American leaders should continue to support the Iraqi government as it deals with medical and economic crises. The success of this new government – which is generally not close to former Iranian influencers – would be one way to enhance Iraqi sovereignty and independence.
The US shouldn’t withdraw all of its soldiers from Iraq, only the combat units that so anger Iran, and some Iraqis. It should leave advisers and trainers in Iraq, together with other members of the international coalition, to provide air cover and intelligence that can aid Iraqi anti-terrorism troops in their fight against extremists.
Should the US troops be forced to withdraw, that means that other countries’ presence will also eventually diminish. A lack of international partners could see the Shiite Muslim forces loyal to Iran getting stronger, even in Sunni Muslim-majority cities, and it would also jeopardise the new Iraqi government’s ability to run the country and to hold elections.