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Congress pushes Trump to reopen US Consulate in Iraq’s Basra province

The State Department closed the US Consulate in Iraq’s Basra province nearly a year ago. Now Congress is laying the groundwork to reopen it.
An Iraqi protester waves a national flag while demonstrating outside the burnt-down local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra on September 7, 2018 during demonstrations over poor public services. - Basra has seen a surge in protests since September 4, with demonstrators torching government buildings as well as political party and militia offices, as anger boils over after the hospitalisation of 30,000 people who had drunk polluted water. (Photo by Haidar MOHAMMED ALI / AFP)        (Photo c

The State Department closed its consulate in Iraq’s Basra province last year after rockets landed near the airport that houses the building. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the closure as “temporary” at the time. But one year later, the facility remains shuttered.

Now Congress is laying the groundwork to ensure the closure doesn’t become permanent.

The Republican-held Senate’s State Department funding bill, released Wednesday, stipulates that the Donald Trump administration must “retain possession” of the Basra consulate and report to Congress on “the conditions and costs necessary for reopening” it. The report must also include “options for maintaining a diplomatic presence in [Basra] in the interim.”

At the time of the consulate’s closure, Pompeo blamed Iran-backed militias for the attack, but provided no public evidence to corroborate the claim. The closure renewed Baghdad’s concerns that Iraq could be caught in the crosshairs of US-Iranian tensions as the Trump administration steadily ratchets up its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.

“We remain committed to partnering with Iraqis in the southern provinces and throughout the country to advance our mutual interests,” a State Department official told Al-Monitor. “The decision was made following our assessment of the overall security situation in and around Basra.”

But earlier this year, the Iraqi envoy to Washington, Ambassador Fareed Yasseen, told Al-Monitor that permanently closing the consulate “would be the wrong message to send given Basra’s increasing importance.”

The attack on the US Consulate occurred shortly after a group of Iraqi demonstrators protesting Tehran’s influence in the province stormed the Iranian Consulate in Basra and set it ablaze. The Iranians have nonetheless reopened their consulate for business. 

The Project on Middle East Democracy, which supports a robust foreign aid budget in the region, attributes this to a split within the Trump administration on how to use Iraq as part of the maximum pressure campaign against Iran.

The organization's June analysis of the Trump administration’s 2020 foreign aid budget proposal says, “On one side are officials who believe the US government should go ‘toe-to-toe with Iran in Iraq’ by sustaining high levels of investment there, as one official described it. Others, however, argue that the United States should be willing to walk away from Iraq, both to demonstrate to Iraqi officials that they cannot take US support for granted and to conserve resources if the US investment there is not paying off.”

The Trump administration, which has sought to slash foreign aid across the board, requested $166 million in Iraqi assistance as part of the State Department’s 2020 budget request. The Senate spending bill, however, designates $453.6 million in Iraqi aid for fiscal year 2020. It also requires the Trump administration to submit a spending plan for its Iraqi aid programs.

Congress is also shoring up the Trump administration’s effort to curb Tehran’s influence in Iraq by weaning it off Iranian electricity imports. The bill earmarks $25 million in aid to Jordan “to increase electricity transmission to neighboring countries, including Iraq.”

The Trump administration has repeatedly renewed Iran sanctions waivers for Iraq to continue importing natural gas for its electricity needs. Iraq relies on Iranian natural gas for a substantial portion of its electricity generation, and widespread power outages in Basra helped fuel anti-government protests throughout the province last year.

But the bill isn’t all good news for Baghdad. The legislation requires Pompeo to report to Congress on “the independence and effectiveness of the judiciary of Iraq and its adherence to international standards of due process, including a description of the impact of corruption on judicial processes and outcomes.”

Iraq has come under significant international scrutiny from both the United Nations and human rights groups for its liberal use of the death penalty when sentencing detained Islamic State (IS) suspects, including women and children. Human Rights Watch estimates that Iraq is holding at least 20,000 IS suspects, and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned of “irreversible miscarriages” of justice.

The Project on Middle East Democracy budget analysis notes that as IS “cells continue to perpetrate human rights abuses, the Iraqi judicial system has struggled to ensure free trial guarantees for suspected members of the group.”

Additionally, Congress is taking a look at the scale of the US diplomatic presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. Although the State Department began construction on a new consulate building in Erbil last year, the legislation also requires Pompeo to submit a report to “assess whether project assumptions are still valid given the current Iraq mission footprint.”

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