As Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi struggles to affirm his nation’s independence and take his people to peace and prosperity, some emerging opportunities for a new national and regional order were exposed last month, along with the serious challenges his beleaguered country faces.
Turkey continued its attacks inside Iraq on the positions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose forces are located in the mountains close to the Turkish-Iraqi border. Turkish forces are now 15 km inside Iraqi territory and have set up at least 50 checkpoints.
On Aug. 11, a Turkish drone hit Iraq’s border guards, killing a general and a brigadier. So far, Baghdad has been quietly accommodative of these Turkish incursions, but this attack has aroused intense official and popular anger, as it sharply exposes the country’s inability to safeguard its sovereignty and protect its senior officers.
Al-Kadhimi is particularly chagrined as he has few resources with which to confront the Turks. Given Iraq’s parlous economic situation, trade ties with Turkey, valued at more than $15 billion last year, are crucial for national well-being. Thus, beyond a diplomatic demarche from Baghdad and expressions of support from its Arab neighbors, Iraq has not been able to take any effective action. This has aroused great public anger, with thousands of demonstrators expressing anti-Turkish sentiment on the streets in Baghdad, in the north and in the Kurdish areas.
Against this background of external attack and popular discontent, Al-Kadhimi visited Washington on Aug. 19 for a bilateral “strategic dialogue” that included a meeting with President Donald Trump. The US agenda was clear: To detach Iraq from Iranian influence and bring it closer to itself and its Arab neighbors. From the American side, all the right buttons were pressed. Trump referred to Al-Kadhimi as a “highly respected gentleman” and announced that they had “become friends.” The joint statement affirmed the bilateral security partnership.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US would help achieve “a stable, prosperous and independent Iraq” and offered development assistance of $204 million for health, education and employment initiatives. Al-Kadhimi, for his part, declared that Iraq was “open for business,” with major agreements being signed with US oil and electricity companies, as well as a deal for the US to supply rice to support Iraq’s food rationing system.
Al-Kadhimi also spoke of Daesh’s “sleeper cells” in the country, indicating his interest in the continued presence of some US troops for “training and capacity enhancement.” After his return, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US troop presence would be cut by a third over the next couple of months.
Iran was clearly on the mind of all participants. American commentators were clear that the US needed to strengthen Iraq economically through budgetary support and longer-term assistance to reduce its dependence on Tehran.
Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein affirmed that Iraq needed both Iran and the US, but added that the Iranians “are intervening more” and called for a “rectification” in bilateral ties.
August’s final significant event was Al-Kadhimi’s presence at the tripartite Arab summit with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan in Amman; their third summit since March last year. Their joint statement highlighted economic and security cooperation, with special attention being paid to water and food security and the fight against the coronavirus disease pandemic.
Beyond the rhetoric, the summit had considerable symbolic value as it highlighted a burgeoning alliance that was pulling Iraq back into the Arab mainstream. Al-Kadhimi described the summit as a “fraternal gathering” and a “gateway to the future.” The three leaders spoke in support of the Palestinian cause and backed the two-state solution. Jordan emphasized its guardianship of the holy sites in Jerusalem, while Egypt obtained support over its competition with Turkey in Libya and the Mediterranean and its dispute with Ethiopia over the Nile dam project. They proclaimed that their endeavors were shaping a “new Middle East.”
But Al-Kadhimi’s domestic situation remains dire. Thousands of demonstrators in Basra have protested the targeted killings of three leaders of the youth-led movement for political reform that has gripped Iraq since October last year. On Aug. 22, they set the Basra offices of the national parliament on fire. The activists have announced the setting up of a political party that will pursue their reform agenda in national elections in June next year. They believe the killings are meant to subvert this initiative.
Al-Kadhimi has promised a full inquiry into the killings and even dismissed some local security officials, but no prosecutions have been launched and the perpetrators have not been apprehended. With no political base, few believe he can effect real change in the political order, which is based on ethnic and sectarian affiliations. Politicians linked with Iran dominate the parliament, while militias tied to it retain power on the streets and continue to attack US targets.
Thus, while Al-Kadhimi may want to make his country a bridge for regional cooperation, it is, for now, likely to remain a battleground for fierce domestic and regional superiority.