Eighteen years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still in the midst of a rocky transition, beset by governance, economic, social and security challenges. With the Biden administration setting its sights on sweeping portfolio of domestic and foreign policy issues, some fear the United States will lose focus on Iraq. But in remarks on Tuesday, the top American diplomat in Baghdad vowed continued American engagement. Ahead of a pivotal year for Iraq, “The United States is resolute in its commitment to supporting [a] stable, sovereign, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller.
The Iraqi government has signaled that it is keen to step up cooperation. The White House announced on Tuesday that Iraqi officials requested a resumption of a strategic dialogue on bilateral relations and the U.S. troop presence. The talks are set to resume next month.
Tueller's remarks came during a USIP-hosted virtual event examining U.S.-Iraq relations. He was joined by Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Fareed Yasseen, and Kurdistan Regional Government Representative to the United States Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman.
“The event demonstrated that both countries recognize that cooperation is vital to building a stable, democratic Iraq,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, who moderated the conversation and directs USIP’s Middle East programs. “This cooperation serves shared interests on the basis of partnership, respecting Iraq’s sovereignty and strengthening its institutions.”
Milestones in March
The discussion came during a month that marks major, and in some cases tragic, milestones for Iraq, including the March 1988 Halabja chemical attack, the March 2003 commencement of the U.S. war in Iraq, and the March 2019 territorial defeat of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Baghouz, Syria, the last ISIS-controlled city. These events have shaped the trajectory of the country and their ripple effects are still felt today.
“We have a fraught political situation, our institutions are not fully recovered … we do have a difficult budgetary and economic situation and we do have a difficult social situation because of a large number of youth are finding it difficult to find jobs and are dissatisfied,” said Yasseen.
As Iraqis and the international community reflect on these watershed moments, Iraq is at an inflection point and the next year could be decisive for the country’s future. “We need the support of our partners to help us continue with the stabilization of Iraq in general, and to protect the Kurdistan Region in particular,” said Rahman.
Iraq Needs Comprehensive Reform
Iraqis hit the streets in unprecedented numbers in October 2019, calling for political and economic reforms, greater job opportunities for youth and better government services. Weary with the old political guard and disenchanted with the country’s political system and its sectarian partisanship, the protests demonstrated a deep societal desire for change, primarily represented by youth.
Iraq’s cratering economy figures heavily in this unrest. The COVID-induced drop in global demand for oil has hit Iraq’s oil-dependent economy especially hard. In response, Iraq’s Central Bank devalued its currency, the dinar, by 23 percent, as the country’s budget deficit grows.
“It’s really the economy,” that is driving young people’s dissatisfaction, said Rahman. “It’s the lack of jobs, it’s the lack of prospects … [a] key area that needs to be addressed is how to really improve the economy.”
Tueller indicated that the United States wants to support economic reforms efforts. He pointed to a white paper on economic reform approved by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s cabinet last October and said it provided a roadmap for reversing Iraqi’s financial and economic woes. “We hope these reforms go from paper to reality,” he said.
Another avenue for the United States and Iraq to step up cooperation is on climate change, which has devastated Iraq. This past July, Baghdad saw record-high temperatures, registering at a blistering 125 degrees. “Climate change is a real problem in Iraq, which is already affected by water scarcity and limited access to potable water,” said Tueller.
Iraq will find a welcoming partner in this endeavor, as the Biden administration is prioritizing climate change as a top domestic and foreign policy issue. “I look forward to the United States [helping] us address global challenges … first amongst those is climate change,” said Yasseen.
Credible and transparent elections would be a vital step in addressing Iraqis’ grievances and building good governance. Kadhimi has pledged to hold early elections to appease protesters’ demands for an overhaul of the country’s political system. Originally slated to be held in June, the polls have now been postponed until October at the request of the country’s election commission, which needs more time to organize the vote.
U.S. and international support are direly needed to help ensure Iraq doesn’t have a repeat of the 2018 elections, which some Iraqi citizens and politicians allege was marred by widespread fraud. “The credibility of these elections [is] so important for all of us in Iraq to have faith in the next parliament and government,” said Rahman.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shia cleric, has endorsed international monitoring to help ensure electoral integrity. For its part, the United States “is committed to supporting efforts to ensure the most credible, transparent and inclusive elections,” said Tueller.
Security and Sovereignty
A key point of strain between Washington and Baghdad has been Iran’s role in Iraq. Last year, tensions between the United States and Iraq simmered over the U.S. killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Iran-supported Popular Mobilization Forces, on Iraqi soil in January 2020. U.S. dissatisfaction with Iraq’s ability to control Iran-allied armed groups added to that friction.
Soleimani’s killing has been followed by a series of tit-for-tat attacks between these armed groups, operating in Iraq and Syria, and the United States. In February, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was attacked three times in a week. President Biden authorized airstrikes in eastern Syria, targeting the group responsible for the attack.
The role of Iran-allied groups will factor heavily into the Biden administration’s considerations on rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. “If we return to the [Iran nuclear deal] we intend to engage in talks to strengthen and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints and address other issues such as Iran’s subsidies to militia groups,” said Tueller. “But we will not sacrifice Iraq’s sovereignty or security to achieve that.”
On top of Iran’s destabilizing role in Iraq, ISIS remains a potent threat. In January, the group claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed at least 32 people.
Even as the group continues attacks, Iraq is dealing with the human legacy of the devastation wrought by ISIS. “We are in a post-conflict situation, with all that implies in terms of armed groups, internally displaced person and refugee camps,” said Yasseen.
The Iraqi government and the international community have facilitated the return of over four million displaced persons. However, hundreds of thousands are still displaced within the country, with those who are perceived to be affiliated with ISIS presenting the most complicated cases.
Pope Francis made a monumental visit to Iraq in March, uplifting the country’s beleaguered Christian community and sending a message of peace and tolerance. “The visit of Pope Francis earlier this month was historic. It was a wonderful moment when the world again remembered and celebrated Iraq’s deep and very rich religious, cultural and ethnic diversity,” said USIP President and CEO Lise Grande in opening remarks.
Among his many engagements, Pope Francis met with Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, sending a message of “universal brotherhood and peace,” said Yasseen. His visit was a “unifying moment for the people of Iraq,” said Rahman. “We in the Kurdistan Region certainly hope that all sides can build on his message.”
Iraqi minorities have faced immense challenges amid 18 years of conflict and the Iraqi government and international community often still struggle to give them the support they need. But, the Pope emphasized that Iraq’s diversity is a source of strength. “The religious, cultural and ethnic diversity that has been a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated,” said Pope Francis during a speech at Iraq’s presidential palace.
The U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue set to resume next month will seek to tackle thorny issues like the U.S. troop presence and how Iraq is addressing the role of Iran-allied armed groups. The first round of the strategic dialogue occurred in June 2020 in a bid to reset relations after the killing of Soleimani.
U.S. engagement is also critical in addressing tension and strengthening ties between the Government of Iraq in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil. “We would like to see greater engagement … by Washington and our other partners in trying to achieve a longer-term, sustainable settlement between Erbil and Baghdad,” said Rahman. “It’s clear that bad relations between Erbil and Baghdad are destabilizing for all of Iraq.”
Yasseen asked that the United States exhibit “strategic patience” with Iraq, noting that America had been “an indispensable friend,” helping in the fight against ISIS, in navigating the country’s financial straits and with other critical issues. “Our interests are aligned,” he said, but Iraq has been devastated by decades of conflict. “The need to strengthen Iraq’s institutions is critical … But we can’t do it overnight.”