For nearly two decades, Iraq has been a victim of U.S. military failure and Iranian meddling. Now a new prime minister is trying to establish a different model for Iraq that stresses sovereignty, anti-corruption reforms and a sustainable military-training relationship with Washington.
Given the U.S. history of military overreach in Iraq, followed by over-hasty retreat, this calibrated approach is a welcome change. The U.S. combat role there is clearly ending, but limited military support apparently will continue. That’s the right balance. And for all Trump’s past tirades about Iraq, he was surprisingly cordial in his meeting with Kadhimi, calling him “a highly respected gentleman” and describing the U.S.-Iraq relationship as “very good.”
Kadhimi is an interesting new face in the region. A former intelligence chief, he became a caretaker prime minister in May, after months of anti-corruption protests by Iraqi youths that paralyzed the country. Kadhimi has bravely struck an independent course, distancing himself a bit from Iran and aligning himself with a protest movement that, as in Lebanon, wants to sweep away corrupt political warlords.
“We do not need U.S. combat troops in Iraq,” now that the Islamic State has been defeated, Kadhimi told me. “We need U.S. troops that focus on training and capacity building.” He said past Iraqi leaders had been “shy” about admitting military support from the United States “We believe this relationship is nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s something to be proud of,” he said.
Some hard questions remain unresolved, Kadhimi said, including the U.S. use of Iraqi airspace and the “roadmap” for redeployment of U.S. forces. Those issues will be addressed by a joint “strategic dialogue” group that has met twice and will continue meeting this year.
Iraq is a flash point for U.S.-Iranian rivalry, and Kadhimi described his struggle to gain some political maneuvering room from Tehran. The Iraqi leader said he told Iranian leaders during a visit last month that Tehran should conduct “state to state” relations, rather than work with individual militia leaders who might undermine Baghdad’s authority.
Kadhimi has also been seeking to improve relations with Saudi Arabia. He discussed Saudi-Iraqi coordination on oil and economic policy with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a phone call Wednesday, the day before his meeting with Trump, he said.
Kadhimi’s toughest challenge is controlling the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that threaten to become a state within the state — much the same way Hezbollah operates in Lebanon. Kadhimi explained: “They feel their legitimacy comes from the U.S. presence in Iraq.” But he cautioned: “That does not give [the militias] the right to attack [U.S.] troops in Iraq. The state should have a monopoly over arms. Any organization that possesses weapons outside the state is regarded as an outlaw.”
In challenging Iranian-backed militias, Kadhimi is taking a courageous step. The risks were shown last month when Hisham al-Hashimi, a security expert who has advised Kadhimi’s government, was gunned down in Baghdad. Kadhimi blamed groups “outside the law” and pledged: “We will not allow assassinations to return to Iraq for a single second.”
Kadhimi speaks of a Europe-like future for his region, with freer flows of capital and technology in what he calls “the new Levant.” He plans to meet next week in Amman, Jordan, with the leaders of Egypt and Jordan to discuss this approach, and he will travel soon to Saudi Arabia to visit the crown prince. Asked about the recent normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, Kadhimi gave a careful answer: “This is an Emirati decision, and we should not interfere.”
Iraqi parliamentary elections are scheduled for June. Kadhimi took office as a transitional prime minister, without a strong sectarian or party base. He stands a chance of retaining power if he can harness the political energy of young street protesters, who are fed up with the traditional parties and politicians.
Asked about his agenda, Kadhimi listed a series of initiatives dealing with public health and the economy. But to make progress in each area, he said, “the most important issue is corruption.” Sadly, such reforms rarely succeed in the modern Middle East. But in Iraq and across the region, the public anger about politics as usual is growing.