Iraq and the United States have launched a reset in relations, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussain said in a USIP forum August 20. Following at least a year of strain in bilateral ties, this week’s negotiations in Washington will produce a broader relationship than previously, “not only limited to security matters,” Hussain said during an official visit alongside Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi just 15 weeks after he and his government took office. Their talks at the White House, State Department and with other officials will be vital in setting the next chapter of U.S-Iraq relations.
Hussain spoke in an online forum with USIP experts and audience members just hours after the Iraqi delegation met President Trump at the White House and a day after Hussain met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Al-Kadhimi, Hussain and Iraq’s new cabinet were named in a delicate compromise among Iraq’s divided political parties—a third attempt to form a new government after massive street protests, notably over corruption and a breakdown in government services, forced out the previous administration. Al-Kadhimi, a political independent, spent years in exile under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussain and returned to Iraq to work as a journalist and commentator, writing against corruption in politics. He was appointed in 2016 to lead the nation’s intelligence service during Iraq’s struggle against ISIS. His government now faces continued violence, including ISIS attacks, the COVID pandemic, and a serious decline in revenues caused by the global drop in oil prices.
Talks on a Broadened Relationship
Hussain spoke along with Iraq’s new minister for immigration and displacement, Evan Jabro, who said that returning 1.4 million displaced Iraqis to their homes is a priority of the new government, alongside crises over security, armed militias operating in the country, the COVID pandemic, and a government budget crisis.
In what the State Department and Hussain have described as a “strategic dialogue,” this week’s talks have focused on “reforming, restarting, reshaping the relationship,” across topics from “the economy and energy” to education, culture and health, Hussain said. “The important [issue] was to make it clear for everybody that the relationship with Washington is not only limited to security matters.”
Still, Hussain said, security is Iraq’s first need, and it will continue to ask U.S. help in fighting ISIS cells. “We need equipment, we need information,” and continued U.S. air forces, he said. As well, “this government is determined to deal with” domestic armed militias, many of them supported by Iran, he said. Iraq will seek U.S. help in strengthening state security institutions, he said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after meeting Hussain that the United States will help strengthen police forces to replace militia groups.
Hussain recited Iraq’s plethora of other domestic challenges, underscoring the shrinkage of its state budget with the global fall in oil prices. He stressed Iraq’s need to privatize the government-run oil sector and said investment by U.S. firms would be vital.
To Stabilize Iraq, Bringing People Home
The new minister for the displacement crisis, Evan Jabro—from Iraq’s Chaldean Christian minority—made her first public appearance abroad to outline the new government’s effort to return home the 1.4 million people displaced within the country. Jabro has worked with two Iraqi organizations that are partners with USIP in projects to reduce communal tensions and accelerate such returns.
Since being appointed in June, Jabro has visited displaced persons’ camps to revive efforts to return home the many Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, and Sunni and Shia Muslims now displaced because of unresolved local disputes following the years of warfare against ISIS. “We wanted to assure all the IDPs [internally displaced persons] that this government is different, that this is a government of doing and not saying,” Jabro said through an interpreter.
Jabro underscored that Iraq is prepared to repatriate an estimated 8,000 women and children, from the al-Hol camp in northwest Syria, who are among the former adherents or residents of the ISIS-declared state in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi security personnel will need to screen returnees, Jabro said. She has underscored that the most effective strategy for disengaging former ISIS supporters from extremist ideology and networks is to return and reintegrate them into their communities. She noted that local communities in some cases are resisting the proposal to let people identified with ISIS return. Jabro expressed a willingness to work with international organizations to address those challenges.
Jabro underscored that the government is listening to local communities. One example: Concerns expressed by the Yazidi community and local officials have led authorities to alter plans for placing returnees from al-Hol, shifting that effort from the locality of Zummar to the Jeddah displacement camp near Qayyara, south of Mosul.
The points made by Hussain and Jabro included these:
- Relations with Iraq, Turkey. Hussain noted that Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi’s first visit abroad, last month, was to Iran, which influences armed militias of Iraq’s Shia communities. Baghdad’s new government will “balance” its relations among neighboring countries, he said. He condemned Turkish attacks into Iraq against guerrillas of the Kurdish PKK forces, saying that they “are not the solution” to Turkey’s long conflict with its Kurdish population. He called for Turkish-Iraqi government talks “to manage this crisis.”
- Iraq’s need for improved elections. To hold the fair elections that Al-Kadhimi has promised for next year, Iraq’s parliament must pass an improved election law and the national election commission will need support from international organizations, to include international observer missions for that vote, Hussain said. “We need to build” Iraqis’ trust “in the future government,” and better elections are the necessary step, he said.
- Improving resettlement efforts. Jabro said the new government has quickly developed an “action plan” to improve coordination with nongovernment organizations in the task of returning displaced families to their homes. She cited recent work with the International Organization for Migration as an example of improved cooperation, saying the government would not interfere in such organizations’ internal policies.
- Responding to COVID-19. Jabro said the government has established quarantines at camps in Dohuk and Nineveh, where a total of 15 cases of COVID-19 broke out among displaced populations, many of whom are housed in dense camps that impede social distancing. The “situation is under control,” she said.
- Local struggles to return families home: Sinjar, Batnaya. Resettlement work is hampered primarily by a shortage of funds, including a delay in passing Iraq’s 2020 budget, Jabro said. But Sinjar, a center of the Yazidi community, which was brutalized by ISIS, also is a special problem because of the degree of destruction and divisions among Yazidis, Jabro said. She visited Sinjar before her trip to Washington. Jabro was hopeful that opening of roads and improvements in the pandemic conditions would accelerate the return of Christian communities to their homes in Batnaya.