US-Iraq strategic talks launched with increasing national, regional support

Iraq has begun a strategic dialogue with the United States that promises to shape various aspects of the two countries' relationship.

al-monitor The shadow of an Iraqi demonstrator is seen on an Iraqi flag during ongoing anti-government protests in Kerbala, Iraq Jan. 10, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa al-Deen.

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iraqi security, iraqi economy, us military, strategic plan, us-iraqi relations

Jun 11, 2020

The strategic dialogue between Iraq and the United States opened at 9 a.m. Eastern time on June 11 and continued for two hours. The first meeting in the series covered four major topics.

The first was a security discussion led by the head of the US delegation, David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs. Representatives of the US Department of Defense also participated in the meeting, expressing their concerns about threats against US troops in Iraq.

The second was an economic discussion led by the Iraqi side about the country's ongoing economic crisis, the government's plans to overcome it and Iraq's plan to become independent of Iranian energy exports. The US delegation emphasized the necessity of economic reforms, expressing US readiness to help Iraq, especially in the energy sector.

A third part was about the political process and organizing early elections, which Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi has promised to do. This portion, which was led by the US side, also addressed human rights in Iraq and the necessity of seeking justice for those hurt and killed in the protests that started last October. More than 700 people have been killed in the protests so far and about 30,000 wounded.

The last portion was a cultural discussion. Iraq has asked the United States to return the Baath Archive and some other pieces of Iraqi heritage. Iraq also asked the United States to extend scholarship programs for Iraqi students.

In a joint statement following the first session, both parties emphasized that "The two governments look forward to in-depth discussions of the above issues at a Strategic Dialogue Higher Coordination Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., likely in July."

Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds have shown full support for the strategic dialogue, while Shiites are divided into two camps. Pro-Iran militias and political forces including the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Fatah bloc, Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and Muqtada Sadr’s Sairoun have expressed strong objections against any talks with the United States that do not end with the expulsion of US troops from the country. But Ammar Hakim’s Hikmah Movement and Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr Coalition supported the dialogue, encouraging the Iraqi government to expand its relationship with the United States.

In his first reaction to the pro-Iran group, Kadhimi announced June 11 that the dialogue with the United States relies on the will of top Shiite religious authority Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the Iraqi Parliament as well as Iraq's needs. Sistani previously expressed his objection to seeking the expulsion of US troops from Iraq before the next elections.

Although pro-Iran forces in Iraq follow Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they respect Sistani’s views and usually avoid taking action against them.

Interestingly, the pro-Iran forces showed flexibility about US' troops presence in the country.

Head of the Fatah bloc Hadi Amiri said that the dialogue must include a timetable for US troops' departure from the country. Fatah previously insisted on their immediate departure.

Head of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, has said, “The American administration should know that when it demands its military forces remain in Iraq, it will be governed by Iraqi law because the Iraqi Parliament has previously refused and will refuse to give immunity to them." Khazali is clearly no longer objecting to the US troops' presence, but only opposing providing them with legal immunity.

 Referring to Iraqi PMU's which have coordinated with the government, the spokesman of the US-led anti-IS coalition in Iraq, Col. Myles B. Caggins, said in a June 11 interview with the Iraqi News Agency, "The international coalition has preserved fundamental partnerships with the PMU within the joint operations [against IS]," adding, "The PMU and its organization is an Iraqi affair and has nothing to do with the international coalition." He noted, "The coalition has no intention of going to war with any neighboring country and its presence is only aimed at combating IS."

The statements from all sides regarding the status of the PMU are significant, as Kadhimi seeks to avoid Iraq again becoming a battlefield between Iran and the United States.

Editor's note: June 12, 2020. This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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