The United States and Iraq held the second round of their strategic dialogue the week of August 17 to discuss bilateral relations as part of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s first visit to Washington since assuming office in May. The visit comes as the new government deals with a host of economic, security, and political reform challenges—including governance and corruption issues, violence by armed groups, renewed ISIS threats, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

View the event transcript

USIP hosted a two-part discussion with Iraq’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Fuad Hussein and Minister of Migration and Displacement Evan Faeq Jabro. The discussion with Foreign Minister Hussein covered U.S.-Iraq relations, the trajectory of the strategic dialogue, Iraq’s attempts to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, and how the international community can best support an independent and sovereign Iraq. The discussion with Migration Minister Jabro covered the current reality and future of Iraqi displaced communities—including ethnic and religious minorities and those at al-Hol camp—and next steps for the new government to tackle ongoing security challenges and other barriers to safe return.

Join the conversation on Twitter with #IraqMinistersUSIP.

Speakers

  • His Excellency Fuad Hussein 
    Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Iraq
  • Her Excellency Evan Faeq Jabro
    Minister of Migration and Displacement of the Republic of Iraq
  • Dr. Michael Yaffe, opening remarks & moderator
    Vice President, Middle East and Africa, U.S. Institute of Peace 
  • Sarhang Hamasaeed, moderator 
    Director, Middle East Programs, U.S. Institute of Peace 

Transcript of Remarks and Discussion with Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein

Fuad Hussein: Thank you to USIP for inviting me each time I am in Washington. Unfortunately, now we are obliged to organize this event in a different way [online]; however, it is important to meet you and to meet many other friends. I’m glad to communicate with you all.

The first question which can be raised: is why are we here this time and why this delegation? In fact, the prime minister received an invitation to be in Washington and to meet President Trump this morning. We were in the White House, and we had a very good discussion. But we are also here because we started the second round of the strategic dialogue between Baghdad and Washington. There's a huge delegation representative of many cities in Iraq who participated in this dialogue. The dialogue started yesterday.

What is our target with this visit? It has to do with reforming, reshaping and restarting the relationship between the United States and the Iraqi government. Why are we talking about restarting, reforming and reshaping the relationship? The previous government under the leadership of other Adel Abdel Mahdi -- I was deputy prime minister in that government -- the relations between Washington and Baghdad suffered from some problems. There was ups and downs in this relationship. Adel Abdel Mahdi had tried to be here four times, but it was unfortunate that he couldn't get the appointment. It became worse actually. We are here to repair this damage. For Iraq, the contracts and the link with Washington are important from an economic point of view. It is important from a strategic point of view. That's why we are talking about the strategic dialogue. It is important from a security point of view. And it is important from an economic and financial point.

But why is Iraq important? We have seen when Iraq was under attack and ISIS occupied one-third of the territory of Iraq and established the so-called Islamic State. ISIS was not a threat only -- for Iraq and for Syria -- and not only the region. ISIS was, in reality, a threat for all of us. For Middle Eastern countries. For European countries. For the international community. Leaving Iraq in a weak position is dangerous. Iraq is also important for the United States because the United States has strategic interests in the region. The United States has many friends in the Gulf countries, and Iraq is on the border with these countries. When Iraq will be threatened, it will also be a threat to many friends of the United States. 

If we go back to recent history, we've fought together -- the United States Army and the Iraqi forces. The Iraqi military and Iraqi Peshmerga forces and security forces always fought together against ISIS and ISIS terrorists. There are parts of ISIS active around Kirkuk and Anbar, around Mosul, but also Syria. We fought together, and our mutual interest is there. It is important for the United States also to have this relationship.

I am glad to say that yesterday the meeting was excellent. We reached an understanding with the American side. In fact, the discussions were about different topics. We dealt with the economic and investment issue. Oil and electricity were part of the discussion, and we signed various memorandums of understanding. But we discussed also the educational relationship and the cultural relationship, as well as issues related to health and fighting the corona disease. Part of the discussion had also to do with security: how can we reshape and reform our relations in this field? I'm glad to say that we reached an understanding yesterday and this morning, also in the meeting in the White House. It was an excellent meeting, and both sides agreed that it is important for both sides to continue this relationship. In the near future, we will see the results of this visit. 

In short, this is why we are here and what we have achieved over two to three days. I would like to be at your service. If there are any question or remarks, I would like to hear from you. Thank you very much.

Question: It's my understanding that this was the third time you have met President Trump since he has come to office. It was not new for you. But I'm curious to know more about what you had hoped to get out of your meeting with President Trump today and more about the results. What does it mean for the overall U.S.-Iraq relationship going forward?

Hussein: This is the third time I had the chance to meet President Trump and to be part of having a discussion with him. What we have achieved today is what President Trump in fact emphasized. Yesterday, we touched up on various issues which has to do with the relations between both countries. We discussed economic items, investment, the oil issue, energy issue, electricity, how an American company can help us. Also, we discussed security matters. Today, President Trump emphasized these things. We discuss these matters on a different level. The vice president was there, and many other cabinet members were there. He had different questions about the situation in Iraq and in the region. My prime minister was very happy with this meeting because we came here to have a clear relationship.

There were some clouds in the last few months since last year and misunderstanding between both sides. We were able to clear the way and to put it on the right path. One of the issues which has been discussed in depth had to do with how we are going to build our security relations. How are we going to fight ISIS and also to train? Which kind of training? How are we going to train the Iraqi forces? These were the questions which had been raised, as well as questions about the role of American companies and various fields in Iraq. We are glad that there were various memorandums of understanding which had been signed with big American companies. We expect them to be back in Iraq again. This was the achievement that we reached during our discussion this morning in the White House.

Question: Could you tell us how you see the Strategic Dialogue shaping up towards the future and as it helps to achieve those various objectives?

Hussein: When we are talking about the strategic dialogue that means the process. We build the process. We started a month ago. Now, we put it in a different framework. This process will continue. On each subject, we are going to discuss -- now we discussed the main issues and the priority  -- but the next meetings we are going to discuss other subjects related to the same topic. 

The important one was to make it clear for everybody that the relationship with Washington is not only limited to security matters. It's wider. If you look to the joint statement, you'll see that we started from other issues. We started from the economy, oil, gas, electricity, education, health. These are important points. These are important matters for Iraqi society. There is lack of service or difficulties in providing services. We have a problem with electricity. We need American oil companies to invest more to help us in this field. In healthcare, we have got a problem. And also, for the future: to invest in Iraqis themselves. We started contacts with American universities. 

There are various fields which would push the relationship between Washington and Baghdad to a strategic level because it will not be only limited to security. I'm glad we agreed about all these points. We are looking forward to implementing what we have achieved now here in Washington.

Question: Can you provide us what you see as the top priorities for the new government in dealing with these issues? How do you see moving ahead in trying to address them?

Hussein: The most important matter for every society has to do with security. If security will not be guaranteed, then it will be very difficult to invite investors. It will be difficult to protect the lives of the people. It will be difficult to protect the economic sector. It will be difficult to do something else. Security is one of the priorities, and Iraq has been under threat since 2003. In the first years, it went well. But after a short time - the first sectarian fight, and then Al Qaeda, and then ISIS -- created a huge problem for Iraqi society. Security was very weak. As a result, the various governments didn't have the chance to build or rebuild the country. To build or rebuild the economy. To build or rebuild the infrastructure. Without security you cannot build other sectors. The priority is to stop there, which has to do with security. 

Is the security situation so bad compared with three, four years ago when ISIS was controlling many areas in Iraq? The answer is no. Compared with the past; the security is quite better. But we must be realistic. ISIS organizations, they are still here and there. Besides the ISIS activities, we have quite different threats in this society. Some of them have to do with tribes. Some of them have to do with other groups. All these things create an unstable situation. The priority, in the first place, is security. 

The second priority is to rebuild the economy. Rebuilding the economy and having security goes together. Without having a good economic life, it makes it easier for terrorist groups to mobilize young people. Rebuilding the economy and creating more chances for young people to find jobs is the most important priority for this government.

Question: Iraq has a delicate balancing act that it performs in maintaining good regional relations in a very fraught geopolitical landscape. Could you talk more about what that means with regard to maintaining Iraqi independence and sovereignty? I understand that you recently visited around with the Prime Minister. Can you give us some insights about what were the outcomes from that visit with regard to maintaining Iraqi sovereignty and also trade?

Hussein: One of the problems that Iraq has related to its own security has to do with the neighboring countries. Our policy is to have good relations with all neighboring countries of Iraq. Since we started this job, we started to talk about having balancing relations with our neighboring countries or creating this balancing. 

Why are we talking about balancing? We want to make it clear. We are not going to have relations with one neighbor to be against the other. We are not going to prefer one neighbor and ignore the other one. We want to deal with them equally, but on the basis of mutual interest. We have got huge interest in both sides. We can create huge chances for the people of these countries together to live in peace, but it's unfortunate that some neighboring countries are intervening in our internal affairs. Some of them are attacking us by military means. This is not acceptable. We want to have good relations. But we must respect each other and not intervene in the internal affairs of each other.

As for the visit to Iran, it is true that I was part of the delegation of the prime minister in the recent visit to Tehran. The message was clear: we want to deal with Iran as a state. We are an independent state. We asked them also to treat us as such. The important thing for the Iraqis is to establish the decision process. The process of making decisions must be established in Iraq. To take the decision must be in the hand of the Iraqis. When I'm talking about making decisions, I am realistic. Of course, there are some decisions which are interlinked with others. But Iraqis must decide about their future. Iraqis must decide about their security. Iraqis must decide about their government. Iraqis must decide about their policy -- foreign policy or internal policy. This is an Iraqi matter that the neighboring countries must understand. We are trying to make it clear for them that this is not acceptable. If this intervention will continue by others, including some neighboring countries, then there will be an unstable Iraq. It would create huge problems, not only for the Iraqis, but also for the region. We have seen it. When ISIS controlled one-third of the country, it was not only an Iraqi problem. It became a regional problem but also an international problem. 

We need to work together to help each other, and we need to have dialogue. As we started the strategic dialogue with the United States, we are ready to start a strategic dialogue with neighboring countries so that we can solve our problems together. But it will be on equal footing. Iraq is an independent country just like others.

Question: There were trade discussions during your visits to Tehran, and Iran had talked to a tremendous increase of expansion of trade with Iraq. Can you talk a little more about what that would look like and any and how you view that kind of expansion regarding Iraqi sovereignty?

Hussein: You see trade relations between Iraq and Iran, but also between Turkey and Iraq. It's all in the interest of both countries. The balance of trade is in the interest of Iran and Turkey. Iran was exporting $12 billion each year to Iraq -- exporting agricultural products and their own products which has been produced inside Iraq -- but four of these billions has to do with the fact that we [inaudible]. We are buying about 1200 megawatts of electricity from Iran. The Iranians are providing gas to three main power stations in Iraq. Translating what they are selling to us into money: that's about $4 billion. In total, the trade relationship between Iran and Iraq is about $12 billion, but because of the corona disease the border has been closed. That has affected the trading relationship. It's not comparable now with a year ago. But still we are importing electricity and gas from Iran.

Question: Can you give us a sense of where you see this relationship with Turkey going in the near term, and areas specifically where you have agreements and disagreements with Turkey?

Hussein: We are condemning these military attacks inside Iraq and condemning these attacks by killing officers belonging to the Iraqi military forces. In the second place, we always ask dialogue to reach an understanding with Turkey. I'm not denying that Turkey doesn't have problems. I know PKK forces are still in Iraq, and PKK forces are fighting against the Turkish army. But this is not new. As you know, the PKK had been established in 1979, and then they started the armed struggle in 1984. Many people inside Iraq and inside Iraqi Kurdistan became the victim of this conflict. Our Iraqi constitution does not allow any foreign group to attack any neighboring country from Iraqi soil. From one side, we are committed to our constitution. It is not allowed for these groups, including the PKK, to attack Turkey from Iraqi soil. But on the other hand, we need to have normal relations with Turkey. Turkey is our neighbor and is a powerful neighbor. We want to have good relations. But to solve the problem inside Iraq, this is not a solution. The Turkish army has been fighting the PKK since 1984, and it has not been solved. We don't want to be a victim of this fight.
 On the other hand, we talk in a dialogue with Turkey. I'm not talking about solving the crisis because it is not in our hand to manage these crises. Violence is not the only way. As I said, it's important to have dialogue: so, you start the strategic dialogue here in Washington. But we need also to have an open dialogue with both countries, especially with our neighboring country, but especially with Turkey and Iran.

Question: How can we be sure that the upcoming opportunities, especially in education and jobs, will go to benefit Iraqi citizens, rather than the politicians and their relatives in Iraq.

Hussein: Politicians and the relatives of politicians are also Iraqis. They have the right to live there, to have jobs. If there will be justice, then it is okay. But if the families of the politicians will be preferred, then that's bad. We have got real problems. This country has been destroyed by internal wars and external wars. This problem that we have -- part of it has to do with the period after 2003 -- but part of it has to do with the period before 2003. Iraq was in a war with Iran for eight years from 1980 until 1988. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait. Then an alliance of many countries attacked Iraq in 1991. Then there was an uprising inside.

All these things destroyed the infrastructure. When I'm talking about infrastructure, I'm not talking only about literal infrastructure. Education infrastructure, health infrastructure and economic infrastructure has been all destroyed. Then there was an embargo against Iraq, from 1991 until 2000. This destroyed also the culture.
The main problem inside Iraq -- not only destroying the economic and material infrastructure -- but also the cultural infrastructure has been destroyed. The values have been destroyed because of all these wars and embargoes. In fact, many Iraqis were happy that they would reach their freedom and that there would be a democratic system after 2003. But after a short time, there was an internal fight. And then Al Qaeda. And then ISIS. 

For about half a century, Iraq was in a war either with itself or with others. This led to a huge problem. Everything has been destroyed. After the change in 2003, expectations went high, and Iraq is depending heavily on oil income. No other sectors had been built up. Other sectors had been destroyed. Agricultural sector had been destroyed completely. The tourism sector is not there. You can have religious tourism, but it has not been developed. The private sector has not been developed. You have got the oil sector. In Iraq, we are talking about the market economy, but in fact we have got only one sector to develop, and that is oil. And oil is in the hands of the government. 

It is not so easy, because of the security, to build a normal life. Now, we are starting to follow this path. We hope that this security situation inside Iraq will help us, so that we can build the economy in different way. We can rebuild the agricultural sector. When we rebuild the agricultural sector, it will be easier to have chances for jobs. 

I see everyday demonstrations of young people always asking the government to find them jobs. The government job, in fact, is to create chances for jobs -- not to offer jobs. We cannot have everybody as an important employee of the government. In 2003, there were about 600,000 employees. Now, we have got more than 4 million people as employees of the Iraqi Government. Do you know we have got about 3 million or more retired people getting salaries from the Iraqi government? In fact, huge amounts of the income that we receive from oil income is going to salaries. This is not a healthy economy. We need security, so that we can build a healthy economy. A healthy economy can be built if we can rebuild the agricultural sector, if we will deal with the tourist sector in a different way and even if we deal with the oil sector in a different way. Oil must not stay in the hands of the government. Companies must play an important role. For all these issues, we need security.

Until September last year, there were many oil companies including American companies. But in October and November, many companies left Iraq because of the insecure situation. When the security is not there, people are leaving. Not only the foreigners, even the rich Iraqis - those who have got capital. They are not going to invest their capital inside Iraq. They are going to take it away. This is a disaster for Iraq. We need to create better security. Part of it has to do with the Iraqi government. To be honest, part of it also has to do with neighboring countries. They must help us to build our security otherwise, I don't know what kind of future Iraq will have. 

Question: It's been said that that ISIS fighters have been traveling across the border into Iraq from Syria and the questions are related to how secure is that border? Where do you see the potential for U.S.-Iraqi cooperation with regard to that? 

Hussein: What are our needs to fight ISIS? We have got people on the ground to fight. We can fight ISIS, but we need equipment. We need information. Part of the fight against ISIS is not only about fighters but to have information about ISIS. We need air attacks. We can have support and help from the United States. We must take ISIS seriously. I remember in 2014, when ISIS arrived in Mosul, they were a small group. But in a short time, they became a big, huge force and they controlled Mosul and later on they controlled other cities. We must take this seriously, and we need support and help from the United States. ISIS is still a threat -- not only in Iraq but also in other countries.

Question: Have you received offers of assistance from other countries, including Russia?

Hussein: During the fight in 2014, there was some support but not so intensive. The support came from the alliance under the leadership of United States and some neighboring countries.

Question: What are the outstanding issues between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government? How do you see that relationship developing?

Hussein: The relationship between the Kurdistan government and the federal government was very bad, especially in the last year of the government of Prime Minister Abadi. But it has been repaired during the first period of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and I was a member of that cabinet. On the basis of the budget, I, as Minister of Finance, was able to pay the share of the KRG, because that was their right.

Then Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi decided to stop that. And that created a huge problem between Bagdad and Erbil. Thank God, parts of it has been solved recently. But I think the KRG and the federal government needs a different kind of approach. Both sides need serious discussion. It is not only the federal government. There must be a real good discussion between Kurdish political parties and Iraqi political parties because there is an atmosphere among some political parties inside Iraq against the KRG. And there is an atmosphere inside Iraqi Kurdistan by some political parties, or some elements, which is against any approach to Baghdad. We need a different approach. 

I hope that the Kurdish political parties can agree among themselves, especially the two main political parties: the KDP and PUK. Then they can establish a new approach and establish ways of having serious dialogues with Iraqi political parties. The Government of Iraq depends heavily on the opinion of the political parties. We need a change in their opinion. We are approaching an election. Many Iraqi political parties also need Kurdish political parties. The chance is there to have a different discussion before the election and to have a clear common program about the future and how to solve the problems between the KRG and the Iraqi federal government.

Question: I understand that the Prime Minister has called for early elections for June 6, 2021. What do you need to prepare for early elections? Do you see a role for the international community to help with elections?

Hussein: What we need internally is first to finish the last touches on the Election Law. We need the parliament to do that. Parliament must do it. Of course, the Election Commission has got shortages which has to do with the organization, but also financial shortages. This must be solved then to decide how we are going to prepare the economics for the election. We need a decision from the parliament in the first place.

As for international organizations: In the last elections, the people of Iraq were not satisfied. Some of them or the majority of Iraqis didn't vote. But that was not the problem. The problem was after the election. People were playing with the results of the election. Having international organizations as observers or helping the election commission in Iraq will help so that people will have trust in the elections. We need to build trust in the coming election so people will accept the results. When the results will be accepted, then people will have trust in the future government. The relationship between the government and the people is important to run the country. If there will not be trust between people and the government, you cannot do a lot. We need to build trust. The process of the coming election with having foreigners, with having international NGOs and international observers there, but also international organizations which can help the Iraqis prepare the ground so that it will be a fair election. That will help to have a new government and to create trust between the people and the future government.

Question: How do you view Iraq's debt, particularly to the World Bank and to the United States? How do you see that impacting on Iraq's overall political and economic and social situation? And how does the government plan to handle this debt?

Hussein: The debt of Iraq is $23 billion to foreign countries and foreign institutions. Internally, the Iraqi government owes almost $41 trillion dinar. Perhaps that's about $34 billion. Some people are talking about $120 billion or $160 billion, but that has to do with the numbers which has been used during Saddam. 

For the Iraqi government, it can deal with this. But first we need different things. First, we need a different approach for producing oil and dealing with our oil internally. We need international oil companies. Perhaps in the future to take steps towards having part of the oil, either producing or exporting, in the hands of the private sector, so that we can introduce the concept of the private sector to other sectors. Otherwise, if oil will stay in the hands of the government this will create a problem for us. The economy will depend on oil, and oil is in the hands of the government. To pay it back, it is a problem, but it is not a huge problem if we will reorganize our economy, reorganize our financial system. And of course, I'm talking about reorganizing all these, but we need to solve security. Who will have security? Who can manage this? Part of it from this has to do with the World Bank and other financial institutions, but as I said Iraq can manage this.

Financially, the United States is playing an important role because the Americans are supplying Iraq with dollars. We are receiving, each period, a big amount of dollars so that's important for the Iraqi financial system. This is an important issue for us because the dollars are coming from United States.

Question: How can Iraq meaningfully deal with such violence and the armed groups that perpetuate it?

Hussein: This is an important question. First, talking about armed groups, we must define which groups. They must be part of the Iraqi forces. When they will be part of the Iraqi forces, then they are under the law but also under the command of the prime minister because he's the commander of the Iraqi forces. If they will be outside the state, then that means they are against the state. And this is a huge problem. This is a big discussion in our society, within the political parties, but also in our contracts with the outside world.

There will not be a place for these groups who are attacking diplomats, attacking embassies, that are functioning outside the state. Strengthening the state -- I'm not talking only about security I'm talking about many things -- then these groups will disappear. But we need first to strengthen the state. 

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