Weakened by the pro-Iranian factions operating in his country, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kazimi will address the possible withdrawal of US troops when he meets President Joe Biden next Monday.
The Washington talks between the two allies will come a week after a deadly attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS), despite the fact that Baghdad claims to have defeated Sunni extremists more than three years ago.
Kazimi finds himself cornered by the influence of Iraq’s other main ally, neighboring Iran, which views the United States as an arch enemy.
In addition, armed pro-Iranian factions strongly pressure the Kazimi government to withdraw the 2,500 US soldiers who remained in Iraq.
Operating under the Hashed al Shaabi paramilitary network, these Shiite factions have been accused of carrying out about 50 rocket and drone attacks this year against US interests in Iraq.
“If there is no significant announcement of troop withdrawals, I fear that pro-Iranian groups could increase their attacks on US forces,” Iraqi researcher Sajad Jiyad told AFP.
As an example, the leader of one of these paramilitary groups, Asaib Ahl al Haq, recently warned that “resistance operations will continue until all US forces have left Iraqi territory.”
Most American soldiers, sent in 2014 as part of a military coalition against ISIS, left Iraq under Donald Trump (2017-2021), who welcomed Kazimi to the White House in August of last year.
The remaining soldiers are officially classified as advisers and instructors to the Iraqi army and counterterrorism units.
– Lasting presence –
Iraq’s Foreign Minister Faud Hussein, already in Washington, assured his country’s press that “the negotiations will establish a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces.”
However, the American press points to a “redefinition” of the forces’ mission.
Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq specialist at the Pearson Institute at the University of Chicago, believes there will be no radical change in the US position in the Middle East.
The Biden-Kazimi meeting could be shaped to help the Iraqi head of government ease local pressure, “but the reality on the ground will reflect the status quo and an enduring US presence,” he said.
Mardini cited the “political cost” to Biden if he authorizes a full troop withdrawal, following the catastrophic “legacy” of the 2011 withdrawal that created a power vacuum that was exploited by ISIS in its 2014 offensive.
It took a three-year military strike, with strong support from the US-led coalition, to regain control of urban centers taken over by Sunni jihadists.
“The last thing the United States wants is to leave Iraq and face the return of IS in a few years,” a diplomatic source said.
ISIS currently operates in mountainous and desert regions, where it activates cells to carry out attacks like Monday’s suicide bombing in a market in the Shiite suburb of Sadr City, Baghdad, which left 30 people dead.
– Election calculations –
But in addition to security issues, Kazimi will have to deal with several other crises threatening his government three months before Iraq’s general elections.
A severe electricity shortage, endemic corruption, activist killings blamed on pro-Iranian armed groups, the coronavirus pandemic and declining oil revenues have fueled instability.
For that reason, Kazimi will have to seek relief from US sanctions on Iran in Washington to allow Iraq to honor its crucial transactions with Tehran and tackle the energy crisis, according to Jiyad.
Electricity shortages during the scorching summer were exacerbated when Iran suspended gas supplies in recent weeks because Baghdad failed to honor its debt of about $6 billion.
“The visit of the prime minister (to Washington) is inexorably linked to his election campaign,” according to Mardini. “It’s part of an effort to garner international and regional support” that will allow it to revive its shaky political base, he added.
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