US-Iraq strategic dialogue to resume this summer

Following the first session of the strategic dialogue between the US and Iraq on Thursday, it was announced that a follow-on meeting would be held later this summer.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Following the first session of the strategic dialogue between the US and Iraq on Thursday, it was announced that a follow-on meeting would be held later this summer.

A joint US-Iraqi statement, issued after the end of the discussions, explained “a Strategic Dialogue Higher Coordination Committee” would convene in Washington DC, “likely in July.”

Thursday’s discussions covered four main topics: security and counterterrorism; political issues; economics and energy; and cultural issues. On the US side, the talks were led by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale, while representatives of the Departments of Defense, Treasury, and Energy, as well as the National Security Council, participated in the videoconference.

On the Iraqi side, the delegation was led by Senior Under Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abdul Karim Hashim Mostafa. The Kurdistan Regional Government was represented by Fawzi Hariri, head of the regional presidency office, and previously Minister of Industry and Minerals in Baghdad. 

Security and Counterterrorism 

“Over the coming months,” the joint US-Iraqi statement explained, “the US would continue reducing forces from Iraq” and discuss with the Iraqi government “the status of remaining forces,” as the two countries “turn their focus towards developing a bilateral security relationship based on strong mutual interests.”

“What we want,” David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, explained to journalists after the day’s discussions, “is to have a strong, normal bilateral security arrangement with Iraq, characterized by training, provision of high-quality weapon systems, joint exercises, and senior officers studying at our respective military academies.”

“For some time,” we “have been consolidating our force presence in Iraq,” based “on the growing capabilities of Iraqi forces on the ground, and so we are looking at a possible force reduction,” Schenker further explained.

US officials had not previously announced that the number of troops in Iraq was being reduced and no details were provided on Thursday, even as they have repeatedly affirmed that the so-called Islamic State is a shadow of the threat that it posed in 2014, when it controlled nearly one-third of Iraq.

However, when asked if there was a schedule for the US drawdown in Iraq, Schenker replied, “There was no discussion of a timeline.”

He characterized the discussion of this issue as “very productive,” and added, “I think that our Iraqi counterparts were satisfied.”

Schenker also cited a related problem. Even as the US seeks to support Iraqi forces in the “ultimate defeat of ISIS,” there are “Iran-backed groups” that “are working against us in that mission.”

The Iranian-supported militias “operate outside the control” of the Iraqi government, he explained. But “our understanding, based on our initial engagements” with the new government of Mustafa al-Kadhimi, “suggests that they are committed” to “re-establishing sovereignty” and “exercising control” over the “rogue militias” and establishing “a unified security service.”

The rogue militias are not only a danger to US troops, Schenker stated, but to Iraqi stability, as well.

Creating and promoting parallel institutions—rather than invading another country with an army—is an established Iranian modus operandi.

Tehran did that with great success in Lebanon, where it, along with Syria, established Hizbollah—now the most powerful political force in Lebanon—in the years after Israel’s 1982 invasion of that country.

During the George W. Bush administration, Schenker served as the Pentagon’s Levant country director, so he is quite familiar with that Iranian approach.

The Islamic State is not yet defeated in Iraq, however, while bringing the pro-Iranian militias under the control of the central government will not be easy. Thus, it remains to be seen how these objectives will be realized. 

Political and Economic and Energy Issues 

In light of the sustained protests in Iraq that precipitated the resignation of the previous government, the new Kadhimi government aims to enact political and economic reforms, particularly against corruption, and prepare for new elections.

In the joint statement, the US affirmed its intent to assist Baghdad “in implementing its governmental program and reforms in a manner that reflects the aspirations of the Iraqi people.”

That includes, according to the statement: “carrying out humanitarian efforts, restoring stability, rebuilding the country,” from the destruction caused by the Islamic State, and “organizing free, fair, and credible elections.”

The US remains “Iraq’s largest humanitarian donor,” Schenker noted.

In addition to the formidable task of reconstruction, Iraq faces economic challenges stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the precipitous drop in oil prices that the global economic retraction has caused.

Washington will support Iraq’s new government in securing assistance from international financial institutions. It also discussed providing economic advisors to Baghdad to implement basic reforms that would facilitate such assistance, as well as promote international investment, including in Iraq’s energy sector. 

Cultural Issues, including Return of Captured Documents 

As Schenker explained, “We agreed to discuss how our educational, cultural exchange programs and assistance will support cooperation aimed at Iraq’s developmental objective and increasing the capabilities of Iraqi universities with the possibility of additional US funding.”

Presumably, such funding would also be made available to universities in the Kurdistan Region.

In the course of the 2003 war that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime, US forces seized and brought back to the US tons of captured Iraqi documents. Only limited use was made of them, however, and at this point—some 17 years later—most people are probably unaware of their existence.

But they are now to be returned to Iraq. Perhaps, Baghdad will do more than Washington did to make those archives publicly available, perhaps to scholars, or at least to make public the most significant points they contain.

That will, doubtless, be of great interest to Iraqis, particularly those who were oppressed by Saddam’s regime, including the Kurds.

At one point, the Bush administration released a very small portion of those papers and posted them on the internet. Among other things, they revealed that Saddam’s regime had extensive dealings with terrorists, including Islamic extremists.

Sudan—where a leading political figure, Hassan al-Turabi, was aligned with Saddam—was an important venue for such operations. 

As a Pentagon analyst told this reporter then, those documents were a better defense of the Iraq war than the charge that Saddam had proscribed weapons of mass destruction.

But the Bush White House did not use the documents in any fashion—not even to explain to the American public why the Iraq war might have been necessary.

Indeed, early on, already in the summer of 2003, it ceased to defend that war, even as that conflict became the subject of vitriolic partisan attack.

Karl Rove, Senior Adviser to Bush and Deputy Chief of Staff, writing his memoirs in 2010, seven years later, described that as “one of the biggest mistakes of the Bush years.”

Editing by John J. Catherine