US-Iraqi relations have failed to develop into a strong and deep strategic partnership following the 2003 US-led invasion despite the crucial role the United States played in setting up the new political system and the Strategic Framework Agreement signed by the two countries in 2008. Conditions on the ground turned out to be unfavorable for the implementation of the agreement’s tenets transforming the United States from occupier to strategic partner supporting Iraqi ministries in the security, economic, diplomatic and cultural arenas. Among the issues hindering the partnership were regional interference in Iraq and the failure of Iraqi politicians to achieve balanced relations among all segments of society and with neighboring states, choosing instead to align with this party or that.
The United States got off on the wrong foot in its relations with Iraq, because post-invasion it considered the country a starting point, or bulwark, in the fight against the regional axis of evil — Syria and Iran. Iraq was also meant to be the base from which democracy would spread throughout the region. This raised fears among some regional players. In 2012, then-parliamentarian and now Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi observed, “Saudi Arabia fears democracy in Iraq.”
According to Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the State of Law Coalition, the regional environment began turning hostile toward the establishment of a democratic, active and independent Iraq in 2013. This hostility pushed regional powers with opposing objectives, which Bayati did not name, to unite against the Iraqi democratic experience.
In 2014, Al-Bayyna, a news website, accused some unnamed countries in the region of seeking to undermine Iraqi elections as an act of resistance against the US vision of changing the Middle East beginning with Iraq. As a result, any strong relationship between Baghdad and Washington became costly to US regional allies on the one hand as well as to the Iraqi government’s ally Iran on the other. The complete withdrawal of US troops in 2011 was an official announcement that the special strategic relationship between the two parties had come to an end. Iraq began to feel the serious consequences and repercussions of this change after the Islamic State (IS) attacked on June 10, 2014.
Iraq found itself confronted with a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the United States to support it after losing one-third of its territory to IS within days. In addition, as conditions for providing assistance, Washington insisted that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki withdraw his candidacy for a third term and that the new Iraqi government take serious steps in the national reconciliation project.
On June 19, 2014, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., then chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “The Maliki government, candidly, has got to go if you want any reconciliation.” That same day, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., urged President Barack Obama to help Iraq militarily on the condition that it be made clear to Maliki “that his time is up.”
Although an important part of the US conditions were met when a new prime minister, Abadi, took office Aug. 12, 2014, Iraq did not receive the same degree of attention from the United States as it had prior to the withdrawal of US troops.
Washington's enthusiasm about Abadi’s ascent to power was palpable. US National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on Aug. 15, 2014, “These are encouraging developments that we hope can set Iraq on a new path and unite its people against the threat presented by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The United States remains committed to a strong partnership with Iraq and the Iraqi people.”
Abadi sought to act in accordance with US positions in the hope of obtaining greater support. In this regard, the most prominent measure and difficult step he took was in March, when he forced the Popular Mobilization Units to withdraw from Tikrit, which the United States had made a condition for aerial assistance to liberate the city. In accordance with US-Iranian views on fighting IS, Abadi constrained the Popular Mobilization Units in Anbar, although they had entered it upon his request on May 18.
Although Baghdad has initiated the reforms advocated by the United States, the degree of US support in the fight against IS has not reached the level desired by the Iraqis. Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari complained Sept. 9 about the lack of international effort in this regard.
On Sept. 28, Abadi attended the meeting on terrorism in the Middle East that Obama convened on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. During the event, Abadi asked that the countries in the US-led coalition against IS meet their various military, service and humanitarian commitments toward Iraq agreed to last year.
Jaafari had asserted in his Sept. 9 comments that Iraq needs its own version of the Marshall Plan developed to rebuild Europe following World War II. Such an endeavor would require Iraq and the United States to re-evaluate their mutual perspectives on their bilateral relationship. Iraq would have to move toward making independent and muscular decisions as a US partner to further both countries’ common interests, especially the fight against terrorism. The United States would have to adapt a new approach to Iraq and no longer treat it as a weak partner that can be neglected or abandoned as in the past. Iraq’s geopolitical importance requires that its international partners, foremost among them Washington, not ignore it or deal with it based on the political wills of influential regional powers.
US-Iraqi relations since 2003 demonstrate that when ties between the two countries become weak or marginal, it paves the way for external actors to enter and jeopardize common US-Iraqi regional interests. Thus, Washington and Baghdad need to reassess their relationship to develop an effective strategy to help restore the balance of power in the region and ensure their mutual interests.