The killing of Soleimani by an American drone on Iraqi territory had plunged the U.S.-Iraqi relationship to its lowest ebb in years. But relations have improved since the selection last month of a new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi. As the country’s former intelligence chief, Kadhimi has good relations with U.S. officials but emphasizes his desire to wrest back sovereignty from foreign powers.
“The main principle in these dialogues is to put Iraqi sovereignty first,” he said in a news conference Thursday. “We don’t want Iraq to become a conflict arena. We want Baghdad to be a city of peace.”
Travel restrictions caused by the novel coronavirus forced Thursday’s participants to trade a planned two-day meeting for a two-hour Zoom call instead. Discussions on the substantive issues also are ongoing outside of the highly choreographed, formal discussions, officials say.
The U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, as the process is called, is likely to last months and will address issues including how the United States can help Iraq gain access to international financial support and whether Baghdad can be persuaded to reduce its reliance on Iran for fuel and electricity.
Seventeen years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the country is facing crises on multiple fronts. The collapse of global oil prices has accelerated the risk of economic disaster; crowds are protesting government failures as Iraq’s coronavirus caseload increases; and the country remains a key venue for at-times violent competition between the United States and Iran.
Islamic State militants, meanwhile, have increased their attacks in recent months, and Iraqi and U.S. military officials say coalition surveillance and air raids remain essential in the fight against the group.
Though lawmakers from Iraqi factions linked to Iran continue to call for the departure of the U.S. military, their tone has been less strident in recent months. But the stakes remain high, and analysts say that Iranian-backed militia groups could launch fresh rocket attacks on U.S. diplomatic and military facilities if the talks are seen to drag.
The dialogue “is unlikely to be the reset to U.S.-Iraq relations that many are hoping for,” said Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior Iraq analyst. “There is a risk that both sides enter this dialogue expecting more than what can realistically be achieved.”
An official in Kadhimi’s office, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said that the prime minister has the difficult task of navigating between domestic and international pressures.
“He faces uneasy pressure from political forces and armed factions who are pushing for an announcement of American withdrawal, even though the withdrawal may have negative political and security effects for Iraq,” the official said.
As if to underscore the threat, a rocket had landed outside Baghdad’s sprawling U.S. Embassy complex early Thursday morning. The attack was not claimed by any group but bore the hallmarks of previous strikes blamed by Iraqi and U.S. officials on Iranian-backed militias in the capital.
Diplomats in Baghdad warned ahead of the talks that expectations for the first round were low. A bit “overhyped,” is how one described it. “It’s the warm-up before the game,” said another. “They have to do it, but this isn’t where you’ll see results.” Both spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with diplomatic protocols.
Loveluck reported from London.