President Joe Biden declared on Monday that the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would cease by the end of this year. But he also made clear that U.S. forces — probably most of the 2,500 now in the country — would be rebranded to “train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS.”
Unlike his abrupt end to the “forever war” in Afghanistan, Biden wants to deepen a strategic partnership with Iraq.
Moreover, the White House wants to help Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, an unusual Iraqi leader and former human-rights crusader. He is trying to pull together a country fragmented by sectarianism, corruption — and Iranian meddling, including aid to Shiite militias that challenge the government.
Aiding Iraq makes strategic sense, given Baghdad’s geography at the center of the Middle East, where it borders Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Jordan. Al-Kadhimi’s government has enhanced frayed Iraqi relationships with its Arab and Turkish neighbors.
A stabilized Iraq could provide an anchor in an increasingly chaotic region. But that goal often seems as distant as a desert mirage.
So I interviewed the Iraqi leader at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. (after his lengthy one-on-one session with Biden at the White House on Monday) about what he hopes to achieve and why he welcomes further U.S. help.
To understand al-Kadhimi’s goals — and why he deserves U.S. backing — pay attention to his background. His surprise ascendance to the prime minister post in May 2020 came after months of demonstrations by frustrated Iraqi youths demanding an end to massive government corruption and militia violence. Hundreds of demonstrators, many of them poor Shiite Muslims, were assassinated by snipers, presumably by Iran-backed forces.
Al-Kadhimi came to office promising justice for the dead youths, and reform of a government in which parties based on ethnicity (Kurdish, Arab, etc.) and religious sect (Shiite and Sunni) divide the spoils. He also agreed to accelerated elections, to be held in October, that may push forward new local leaders.
But pro-Iran militias have responded with more targeted killings, including journalists and intellectuals. And they may threaten the security of the elections.
Yet, the Iraqi leader insists he has made progress in curbing those pro-Iranian militias and can make more if the United States stays engaged.
“Definitely the circumstances of Afghanistan are different from Iraq,” the prime minister told me. “Iraqi troops have reached the stage, via U.S. training and capacity building, where they can play a full role.”
His focus, and the White House’s, he said, was on “a long-term strategic partnership,” including “training, intelligence assistance, and cooperation on science, the economy, education and issues related to the environment. These are signs of countries building a relationship.”
But would Iran accept the continued presence of American troops — for whatever purpose — on Iraqi soil? Or would pro-Iranian forces, who demand the exit of all U.S. troops, increasingly target U.S. personnel? Biden’s declared end to the “U.S. combat mission” may provide Iraqi politicians of all political stripes with cover for supporting a U.S.-Iraqi partnership. Will the militias — and Tehran — pay heed?
“This is an Iraqi affair,” al-Kadhimi insisted. “We will be clear to friends and neighbors that we pursue Iraqi interests.”
“I am an independent prime minister. Non-state actors don’t represent Iraqi policy,” he said, presumably referring to pro-Iranian militias.
Al-Kadhimi stressed that “the killers of Hisham al-Hashimi have been arrested,” referring to the notorious murder a year ago in Baghdad of a noted expert on armed groups. He added that “death squads responsible for the killing of numerous protesters are in custody, including more than 150 individuals.” In his previous post as chief of the national intelligence service, he says he “fought sectarian affiliations in the security service.”
But he rejects critics who demand that he take on the pro-Iran militias directly with military action. “I don’t want to get the Iraqis and myself into further bloodshed,” he insists. “I don’t want the Yemeni [civil war] model. I need patience to build the nation.”
I asked whether the U.S. wants him to strike back at militias militarily, or act as a buffer versus Tehran. “I won’t accept,” he replies, “and I am not being asked.”
For al-Kadhimi, the route to stability lies in strengthening Iraq’s economy and state institutions, with help and investment from the U.S. and the West. But Iraqi youth, deprived of electricity, jobs and hope for the future, are impatient. Protesters are calling for boycotting the upcoming election.
Meantime, Iran, which shares a lengthy border with Iraq, and the Shiite Muslim faith with a majority of Iraqis continue to meddle, all the more when relations between Washington and Tehran grow increasingly tense.
Al-Kadhimi, however, perseveres, calling on Iraqi youth “to avoid the boycott. The solution will come through participation and change. Lack of turnout will bring the same old names.
“I understand young peoples’ frustration,” he says. “Reform takes time.”
Would he accept a second term, if a new parliament chose him again after elections? “I accepted this role to serve my country. If there is an Iraqi consensus, we will see.”
Meanwhile, it’s worth the U.S. effort to buy al-Kadhimi more time.