With the continued stalemate in Iraq’s deepening political crisis, the United States is encouraging the country’s leaders to engage in an inclusive, constructive dialogue that involves all key political figures and blocs in an Iraqi-driven process.
“What happens next, whether it's early elections or formation of the government, is for the Iraqis themselves to decide,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran and Iraq Jennifer Gavito told Al-Monitor in a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday.
Iraq has been in political limbo since its parliamentary elections in October 2021. Candidates loyal to Iraqi populist cleric Muqtada Al Sadr won the most seats, but not enough to form a majority government.
Sadr withdrew his lawmakers from the parliament in June. His rivals in the Coordination Framework of mostly Shiite parties, including some aligned with Iran, are seeking to form a new Iraqi government.
When the Framework tried to form a new government in August, Sadr’s supporters seized the parliament and other government buildings. The intra-Shiite feuding spilled over into the streets of Baghdad, with militia clashes in the heavily fortified Green Zone that killed over 60 people and injured hundreds.
Gavito said that the US government is watching "very closely" whether there could be a return to violence after the Shiite Arbaeen holiday, which ends September 16, with the parliament likely to reconvene soon after.
“Iraqi leaders across the spectrum need to make sure that all voices are included as part of any political compromise,” said Gavito. “If there are voices that are left out, that breeds trouble, that breeds conflict.”
Sadr, a critic of both US and Iranian interference in Iraq, represents a “very significant set of voices in his country,” she said.
Asked if an inclusive political solution also includes Framework parties aligned with Iran, Gavito said the United States is prepared to work with a government “that puts the needs of the Iraqi people, the sovereignty of Iraq and its stability and security at the forefront of its agenda.”
Gavito added that Washington would welcome Tehran's support for an inclusive dialogue. “Iraq and Iran should have good, solid positive relations, but they should be positive in both directions,” she said.
The US-Iraq Strategic Framework agreement, Gavito said, is not only bilateral in focus, but seeks to put Iraq at "the center of regional stability." Both Iraq’s participation in the GCC+3 Jeddah summit in June and the Gulf Cooperation Council Interconnection Authority energy agreement, she said, reflect a commitment by the US and Iraq’s neighbors to Iraq’s “emergence as a regional leader.”
A lightly edited transcript of the full interview follows.
Al-Monitor: President Joe Biden and the State Department have backed the National Dialogue in Iraq as an essential step to get the parties talking and advance the political process. What needs to happen next? Additionally, where does the US stand on the political process, and how is it engaging the Iraqi parties? Should a government be formed first, as the Coordination Framework has proposed, or should Iraq move to early elections?
Gavito: We've called for Iraq to engage in an inclusive dialogue that prevents another return to violence. What happens next, whether it's early elections or formation of the government, is for the Iraqis themselves to decide. We've been very clear throughout the government formation process, which is now in its 11th month, that it's not for the US government or another entity to interfere or direct government formation. The resolution of this crisis really is a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of every Iraqi political leader involved. And we do believe that the right way to do that is through dialogue.
The issue of early elections specifically is also an issue for the Iraqis to decide. The US stands ready to ensure that any future election is fair, legitimate and transparent, and reflects the needs of the Iraqi people. But ultimately, we will take our cues from Iraq.
Al-Monitor: How concerned are you about the potential violence on the Arbaeen religious holiday?
Gavito: We are watching that very closely. We were dismayed by the violence that we saw a couple of weeks ago. We've been engaged both in Baghdad and from D.C. in both public and private conversations with a clear message that urges all the parties to engage in an inclusive, sincere dialogue that prevents another episode like the one that we saw. Violence — I think we're all clear, I think the Iraqis are clear — is not going to resolve the current political impasse. It's only dialogue and compromise that will do that. As Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf noted during her trip, democracies struggle, and we're advising Iraqi leaders as a fellow democracy.
Iraqi leaders across the spectrum need to make sure that all voices are included as part of any political compromise. If there are voices that are left out, that breeds trouble, that breeds conflict. And so without political compromise, as we've already discussed, Iraq's leaders are going to drive the country to a cliff's edge. We don't think the Iraqi people themselves would want that.
We are not here to impose some sort of specific formulation for resolution of this, but there has to be political will of the leadership to compromise and resolve the impasse. They have to come to the table, compromise, and make decisions. Iraqis have seen too much violence over the course of years. And we hope that the leadership of Iraq has recognized that the Iraqi people reject that, and that they have a responsibility and an urgent need to sit down and put the country on the path of greater stability.
Al-Monitor: Commenting on her recent trip to Iraq, Assistant Secretary Leaf said today that Muqtada al-Sadr represents an important slice of the Iraqi constituency and that her soundings in Iraq indicate that he should be included in the political process. Sadr is calling for early elections, rather than forming a government as the next step. How is the US in its position and engagement threading this needle, and is the US engaging Sadr or his people directly on these issues?
Gavito: I'm not going to speak to what specific meetings or conversations we've had and with whom. But what I can say is that both during [Leaf’s] trip, our ambassador on the ground and certainly here from Washington, were engaged with leaders from across the political spectrum. As far as the political process and Sadr’s participation in it, I would just reiterate what she said, which is that a figure like Muqtada al-Sadr does represent a very significant set of voices in his country. And one of the foundational principles of a democracy is in fact inclusion. So one way or another, his and every other voice from the political spectrum has to be heard in the discussion in order to set Iraq on a path towards stability. The other piece of that is, of course, compromises also have to be made from all sides. What we heard unequivocally during Secretary Leaf’s trip is that Sadr’s exclusion from the political process was unsustainable to finding a solution.
Al-Monitor: Are there any concerns about any of the parties within, say the Coordination Framework, when you talk about inclusion, including those that may be considered as aligned with Iran?
Gavito: Let me answer it this way. We've said consistently and continue to articulate both publicly and privately that we are prepared to work with an Iraqi government that puts the needs of the Iraqi people, the sovereignty of Iraq and its stability and security at the forefront of its agenda.
Al-Monitor: Assistant Secretary Leaf also addressed the longstanding dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region over oil resources, following the federal court’s decision this year. Where does the US stand on this issue, and how is the US helping advance a resolution?
Gavito: This issue is indeed of paramount importance to us, not least because we have US companies that are committed to investing in Iraq and to being a partner in modernizing its energy infrastructure. And so where we see the situation today is not in the KRG’s interest and it’s not in Baghdad’s interest. So while respecting Iraq’s constitutional framework, which we do, the US is encouraging both sides to seek a negotiated solution that supports both the existing and future investment that puts the needs and interests of the Iraqi people at the forefront, including those people in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
With regard to encouraging a more complete resolution, including for example, an eventual hydrocarbons law, our advocacy really focuses on mitigating the impacts of the decisions made thus far in order to foster Iraqi stability and lessen the impact that we've seen on US firms, and also to calm global energy markets.
By doing all of that we believe that we'll also take a step towards ensuring Iraq's own stability. So we continue to press the government of Iraq to ensure that US companies are equitably treated, and that the necessary dialogue is taking place in order to de-escalate the situation pending formation of a government that's able to address these issues in a more sustainable way.
Al-Monitor: What about the role of Iran, which holds sway with a number of the key political parties in Iraq? Would it be considered a sign of goodwill by the State Department and the US government if Iran were to use its influence to help facilitate an inclusive, political outcome? It would seem at face value a shared interest of the United States, Iran and our partners in the region that Iraq continued to be on the path toward stability.
Gavito: We understand that Iran is really a very important partner for Iraq. And they have a considerable border, considerable shared interests. And so I just want to take the opportunity to repeat what we said before, which is that we believe that Iraq and Iran should have good, solid positive relations, but they should be positive in both directions. And I think what we've seen in Iran’s approach to Iraq to date has often been disruptive. So to answer your question, yes, I think it would be welcome for Iran to echo the call for an inclusive dialogue. But at the same time, we would encourage more respect for Iraqi sovereignty than we have traditionally seen.
Al-Monitor: The US has invested a great deal in Iraq, going back to 2003. It seemed over the past two years that there has been substantial progress under Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in terms of regional integration both with the Gulf, per the agreements at the GCC +3 summit in June, and a deepening of the trend that was already underway with Egypt and Jordan, not to mention the Iraqi-mediated talks between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This trend in Iraqi policy has been strongly backed by the United States. How is the administration continuing to support this progress with partners in the region, given the current difficult political situation they face right now?
Gavito: I think that you've probably heard President Biden say, and certainly, Iraq's inclusion in the GCC+3 summit in Jeddah was further evidence of his commitment and his belief that Iraq is really central to the stability and security of the wider Middle East. He really sees Iraq as having a central role in regional stability. And so our vision for Iraq has really evolved over the years, and I think it's notable that … it got lost a bit in government formation … but that Dec. 31 marked the end of combat operations.
Moving forward, the US really envisions a partnership with Iraq. I think Assistant Secretary Leaf described it as a relationship that extends 360 degrees. It's a relationship that cuts across not just security cooperation, but also energy, climate, water, trade, education, corruption, human rights — all of those things that we talk about with bilateral partners across the world.
We are extremely committed to implementation and advancement at the US-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement. That really encapsulates our commitment to these issues. And it is that strategic framework agreement that also guides our engagement with regional partners on ways that we can continue to expand this partnership on a bilateral basis, but also one that puts Iraq at the center of regional stability. And so things like the Jeddah summit and other engagements — the recent conclusion of the GCCIA energy deal — these all reflect, I think, a commitment not just of the United States, but of Iraq's neighbors in continuing to engage and support its emergence as a regional leader.
Al-Monitor: The US has been in Iraq now for some 20 years. What are the lessons learned from our engagement there?
Gavito: We believe strongly, having a long couple of decades’ history in Iraq, in the important role that Iraq plays in the region and the importance of the US commitment to continuing to help Iraq, to partner with Iraq, in developing its economy and addressing the challenges that it faces.