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Where will new round of strategic talks with US take Iraq?

Iraq and US agreed on shifting the anti-IS coalition to training and support only, working on ending the presence of any combat forces.
Iraqi-US strategic dialogue

The latest round of strategic dialogue between Iraq and the United States, which could lead to a further withdrawal of US troops, took place April 7. 

Iraqi officials say the talks, which began in June 2020, are aimed at establishing a more developed and diverse relationship with the United States, giving priority to education, technology, health and culture, as well as economics and security.

But Iraq also wants to end the presence of US combat troops, a sensitive topic for the country, although Iraqi officials acknowledge that they need US and international support for training and logistics, as well as the use of air power against Islamic State.

“The relationship between Washington and Baghdad must be based on Iraqi-American interests in the fields of economy, security, culture and health,” Kadhimi said in an interview with the Hadath TV channel March 27. He added, “Iraq does not need the presence of combat forces, but it needs international support and the international coalition's airstrikes against Islamic State hideouts.”

“The great development in the capabilities of our security forces paved the way for the departure of nearly 60% of the coalition forces during the past months of the life of this government,” Kadhimi said during a national security council meeting April 7.

Kadhimi became prime minister in May 2020.

Kadhimi added that Iraq is moving toward self-sufficiency where it only needs training, advisory roles, logistical support and intelligence cooperation.

In line with Kadhimi's statements, the first session of the talks April 7 highlighted the capability and progress of Iraqi forces,  and both Iraq and the United States agreed on shifting the coalition forces to training and advisory tasks.

“In light of the development of the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, the two parties concluded that the mission of the US and coalition forces has now shifted to training and advisory tasks in a manner that allows the redeployment of the remainder of the combat forces outside Iraq,” the statement read.

In terms of setting a timetable for the redeployment, the two parties agreed on setting the timetable during upcoming technical talks.

“This shift in the nature of the missions of US and other international forces from combat operations to training, equipping and support reflects the success of our strategic partnership and ensures support for the ongoing efforts of Iraqi forces to ensure that ISIS does not threaten Iraq's stability again,” the statement emphasized. ISIS and IS are abbreviations for the Islamic State.

Mahmoud al-Rubai, the spokesman of the Sadeqoun movement — which is the political wing of Asaib Ahl al-Haq — issued a statement about the strategic talks that said, “Provided that their numbers, missions and whereabouts are known, there is no objection to the presence of advisers for training and development purposes, as well as military technicians, according to the real need for the Iraqi armed forces, their weapons and their equipment, which is applicable in various countries of the world, and we are not against intelligence and information cooperation with countries of the world in order to fight IS and fight terrorism.”

“We leave the matter to be determined by the competent authorities,” Rubai said.

A source close to Iraqi militias told Al-Monitor that the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Ismail Ghaani, was in Iraq on April 4-6. He is said to have met with several militia leaders and to have put pressure on them to stop any acts outside of the Iraqi state.

This comes in conjunction with the resumption of negotiations between Iran and world powers on finding a pathway to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. It could be that Iran does not want to ruin the negotiations before they get started.

Although Iran was not willing to enter any direct dialogue with the United States on the nuclear deal, it finally accepted indirect talks with the United States in Vienna this week.  

Prior to the US-Iraq strategic talks, the Coordinating Committee of the Iraqi Resistance Factions, which includes all Iran-backed militias, issued a statement demanding a clear timetable for departure of all US forces from Iraq. The committee said it supports the strategic talks only if they lead to setting a clear timetable for a US departure, and that otherwise militias will return to attacking US bases and forces in Iraq.

However, most Iraqis, including Shiite parties close to the militias, would see such attacks as acts of destruction that harm Iraqi security, as a majority backs having international support when such support does not include combat forces.

As both Iraq and the United States have agreed clearly that the combat mission of the coalition has been ended and their forces will be only doing training and providing technical support to Iraqi official forces, groups seen as acting against the coalition would be seen as chaotic forces who want to damage Iraq's security. 

Under circumstances, only Iran-backed militias would be standing against the coalition as other anti-American groups such as the Sadrists would not get involved.

This by itself is a big achievement for Kadhimi's government in terms of dividing the resistance movement and marginalizing Iranian-backed militias.

It seems that the possibility or volume of attacks against the coalition could depend as much on the success of Iranian-US dialogue as opposed to the Iraqi-US one.

The Iraqi government, however, reassured its “commitment to protect the personnel and convoys of the international coalition and the diplomatic missions.” Moreover, the Iraqi government said, “All military bases in which the coalition is present are solely Iraqi bases and the coalition staff are exclusively there to support Iraq's efforts in the war against IS.”

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