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Pompeo welcomes new Iraq government, extends Iran sanctions waiver by 120 days

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on the formation of his new government in a phone call on Thursday and announced a 120-day extension to Iraq’s waiver on the import of Iranian energy.

Although several cabinet posts are yet to be filled, Kadhimi has succeeded where others have failed to end the political deadlock that has paralyzed Iraq since December.

Kadhimi now faces a monumental task of navigating an economic crisis brought on by the collapse of world oil prices and the coronavirus outbreak, while balancing relations with Iraq’s powerful allies, the US and Iran. 

He must also address the demands of Iraq’s young protesters, whose months-long occupation of city squares across the country demanding jobs, services, and action against corruption brought down the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi late last year. 

Pompeo and Kadhimi “discussed the urgent hard work ahead for the Iraqi government, implementing reforms, addressing COVID-19, and fighting corruption,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

In a gesture of goodwill to the new Baghdad administration, the US has extended a sanctions waiver granted to Iraq allowing it to continue importing electricity and gas from neighbouring Iran for another 120 days. 

“In support of the new government, the United States will move forward with a 120-day electricity waiver as a display of our desire to help provide the right conditions for success,” Ortagus said.

The US had granted Iraq a 30-day waiver on April 26, which was due to expire on May 26. The extra leg-room will give Kadhimi time to get his house in order before Washington again turns up the heat. 

Iraq’s defective energy sector suffers from daily power outages and depends on Iranian imports to function. Blackouts, particularly in the hot summer months when demand for air conditioning is high, often stokes social unrest in Iraq.

The US reimposed a raft of harsh economic sanctions on Iran after the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in May 2018. 

While other major importers of Iranian energy, particularly oil, were forced to shop elsewhere else face US sanctions, Iraq was granted recurring waivers of between one and four months – on the condition it eventually weans itself off Iranian imports.

The future of the US-Iraq strategic relationship was also raised in the phone call.

“The Secretary and the Prime Minister also discussed the upcoming US-Iraq strategic dialogue and how they look forward to working together to provide the Iraqi people the prosperity and security they deserve,” Ortagus said.

Pompeo announced the strategic dialogue, slated for mid-June, during a Washington press briefing on April 8.  

“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,” Pompeo said at the time. 

US forces have withdrawn from several Iraqi bases in recent weeks as part of a general repositioning plan in response to successes in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State group (ISIS) and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Washington and Baghdad have had a rocky relationship in recent years, made worse by mounting tensions between the US and Iran. 

Iraqi military bases hosting US troops have come under repeated rocket attack in recent months. US officials suspect the attacks were launched by pro-Iran militias. 

A deadly rocket attack on the K-1 base in Kirkuk last December led to an escalation in US-Iran hostilities, culminating in the US assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad on January 3. 

Tehran retaliated on January 8 with a barrage of missiles targeting Iraqi bases hosting US troops.

In response to the assassinations on Iraqi soil, pro-Iran factions in the Iraqi parliament held a non-binding vote to expel foreign forces from the country. 

The US has deployed Patriot air defense batteries to Ain al-Assad military base in Anbar province, and another to Erbil.

Despite the US drawdown, Washington appears to remain committed to tackling pro-Iran forces in Iraq.
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