The US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue: Good news for the Kurdistan Region

It has been some time since good news for the Kurdistan Region has come out of Washington, but the second round of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue was just such an occasion. It was also good news for Baghdad and Washington.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – It has been some time since good news for the Kurdistan Region has come out of Washington, but the second round of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue was just such an occasion. It was also good news for Baghdad and Washington.

The several reasons for this include the new Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was a journalist and human rights activist, before entering government service.

Kadhimi represents the first time since 2005 that Iraq’s prime minister does not come from a Shi’a religious party. Kadhimi is not a sectarian figure, and the two major Kurdish parties—Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—played key roles in helping him become prime minister.

US officials, for their part, like Kadhimi, as Nichola Heras, Middle East Portfolio Manager at the Institute for the Study of War, told Kurdistan 24.

In their view, “Kadhimi is the best chance for the United States to have a big impact on the future of Iraq, especially to counter Iran's influence,” Heras said. Moreover, the US team, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to have a clear idea of what needs to be done in Iraq, after years of missteps in Washington.

As head of the CIA in the first 15 months of the Trump administration, Pompeo seems to have developed a solid understanding of the situation. Moreover, as State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus explained to Kurdistan 24, as CIA Director, Pompeo developed “an incredibly close relationship” with Kurdish Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani, who headed Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) intelligence, in that period. 

Read More: ‘We work incredibly closely with the KRG;’ US State Department 

In addition, David Schenker, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs since June 2019, has a good knowledge of the region. Fluent in Arabic, Schenker served in the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration. 

Second round of the Strategic Dialogue 

With ISIS largely defeated as an entity controlling territory, the US seeks to normalize ties with Baghdad—to have essentially the same kind of relationship with Iraq that it has with Arab countries, like Jordan and Egypt. And it appears that Kadhimi seeks the same.

Specifically, the Strategic Dialogue aims at implementing an Iraqi-US agreement concluded over a decade ago—in December 2008, in the last months of Bush’s presidency: the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA.)

The SFA was neglected by the Obama administration. Iraq’s leadership was difficult: weak and increasingly sectarian. Moreover, as a senator and then presidential candidate, Barack Obama had opposed the 2003 Iraq war—just as Trump does.

However, that sentiment does not translate now into neglect of Iraq. In addition to the change in Iraqi leadership, another difference is that while Obama sought to reach a deal with Iran and adopted a conciliatory posture toward it, the Trump administration strongly opposes Iran and its regional expansionism. However unwillingly, Iraq is a key battleground in that struggle and to walk away from Iraq is to hand it over to Iran.

There are also, presumably, lessons learned from Obama’s hasty departure from Iraq: just three years later, the threat from ISIS suddenly appeared, and US forces were obliged to return to Iraq. 

Washington DC Meetings 

The first round of the US-Iraqi Strategic Dialogue was held on June 11. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was held virtually. 

Read More: Second meeting in US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue this summer 

The second round began on August 19, as Pompeo met with the visiting Iraqi delegation, and the following day, President Donald Trump met with them. There were also meetings with the Secretaries of Defense and Energy, as well as other senior US officials.

The Iraqi delegation included significant KRG representation: Fawzi Hariri, Chief-of-Staff of the Kurdistan Region President; Dr. Amanj Raheem, KRG Cabinet Secretary; Lawk Ahmed, Chief-of-Staff of Vice President Mustafa Sayid Qadir; Gen. Hajar Ismael, Director of Coordination and Relations at the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs; and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, KRG Representative in Washington.

In addition, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Dr. Fuad Hussein, is Kurdish and served previously as Chief of Staff to Masoud Barzani, long time president of the Kurdistan Region until stepping down from that position in 2017.

As KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani put it in a press conference with Iraqi and other Arab journalists: “The US was keen for the Kurdistan Region to have active participation in the Iraqi delegation in the strategic dialogue with Washington.” 

Read More: Kurdistan Region prime minister speaks to Iraqi and international Arab media 

Joey Hood, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, described the significance of the Strategic Dialogue in vivid terms: “That the United States hosted such a logistically complex in-person summit in the midst of a global pandemic speaks to our commitment to a stable, sovereign, and prosperous Iraq.”

There were “seven breakout sessions,” Hood explained, including one on “preparations for credible elections,” now slated for 2022. Other discussions focused on “protecting civil society,” amid continuing demonstrations against corrupt and poor governance; “ensuring the lasting defeat of ISIS,” as well as helping minorities persecuted by ISIS recover from its brutalities.

Also on the agenda, Hood explained, were “expanding bilateral trade, implementing reform, improving Iraq’s business climate, and improving Iraq’s energy production and electricity infrastructure.”

In his meeting with Kadhimi, Trump was “surprisingly cordial,” the veteran Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius, wrote, as he noted that Trump had called Kadhimi “a highly respected gentleman” and described the US-Iraqi relationship as “very good.”

This perspective was confirmed independently to Kurdistan 24. “The US laid on a warm welcome and expressed its support in public and private” for Kadhimi, in particular, and for Iraq generally, an informed source said.

“Nine MOUs (Memoranda of Understanding) were signed,” including five with major US energy companies, while “the US announced $204 million in humanitarian aid,” along with $10 million to support the Iraqi elections, the source added.

“These are no small achievements for a prime minister who has only been in office a few months,” he continued, suggesting one caution: “The question now is how both sides follow up on these achievements and how the discussions at the Strategic Dialogue are implemented.” 

Countering Iran in Iraq 

Even as the US offered major support to Iraq’s new government, it also made clear its expectations: above all, Baghdad must do more to diminish Iran’s influence in Iraq, including the role of the pro-Iranian militias.

Conversely, Washington is promoting relations between Iraq and its Arab allies, above all, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, as well as Jordan and Egypt. That includes linking Iraq’s electricity grid to theirs, while disconnecting Iraq’s grid from Iran’s.

Since July, the Kurdistan Region has been supplying Iraq with some electricity, as the KRG Minister of Electricity told journalists on August 26. Erbil has surplus plant capacity, but lacks the fuel to operate that machinery 24 hours a day. So Baghdad has provided Erbil the fuel for that electricity production, while covering some other expenses, and it now receives 500 megawatts of electricity daily from the Kurdistan Region’s grid. 

Read More: Kurdistan Region supplies Iraqi government with electricity: regional minister 

Speaking to the Arab media, the Kurdish Prime Minister added that the Kurdistan Region’s electricity production capacity is roughly double what it produces now, and if Baghdad provided more fuel, Erbil could provide more electricity.

The US push to develop Iraqi ties with Sunni Arab states, rather than Iran, works, more generally, to the benefit of the KRG, as Erbil has good ties with those states. The KRG offered both Washington and Baghdad to provide any assistance that might help facilitate the development of Iraq’s relations with them.

In addition, if those countries want to do business in Iraq, but are concerned about being targeted by Shi’a militias, the KRG suggested they could operate, in safety, from the Kurdistan Region.

Soon after returning from Washington, Kadhimi attended a summit on August 25 in Amman, hosted by Jordanian King Abdullah II, which also included Egyptian President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi. Two days later, the Saudi Foreign Minister arrived in Baghdad, and Kadhimi welcomed Saudi Arabia as a “true partner to Iraq.”

In their talks with the Iraqi delegation, US officials raised the danger posed by Shi’a militia attacks on Coalition troops. Iraq has done too little, in their view, to counter those assaults, despite US intelligence pinpointing the individuals responsible.

US officials also raised a related point. The pro-Iranian militias, which emerged in the context of the fight against ISIS, were formally incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) under an earlier prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to bring them under the control of the Iraqi government.

However, the command of those militias did not really change. They continue to take orders from Tehran, and Baghdad needs to stop funding them, the US said. 

Pushing Baghdad to Settle Differences with Erbil 

The US also pressed the Iraqis to resolve differences with the KRG, particularly the budget dispute, in accord with Iraq’s 2005 constitution.

“I urged Baghdad to clinch a budget deal with the Kurdistan Regional Government,” Pompeo told journalists in a joint press conference with the Iraqi Foreign Minister following their meeting.

A senior administration official, briefing the press later that day and in advance of Trump’s meeting with Kadhimi the next day, spoke similarly, but more expansively.

“The constitution is the basis and the contract between Iraq’s people and its government,” he said, responding to a question from Kurdistan 24. “As you know, there are a number of provisions regarding the relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, and we’re keen to see those fulfilled.”

This, too, is a position friendly to the Kurdistan Region. As Prime Minister Barzani said subsequently, as he briefed the Arab media, ”Unfortunately, after the constitution was approved in 2005, the people of the Kurdistan Region did not feel that the federal government in Baghdad was committed to the constitution as required, so all the problems that we are witnessing today are the result of the lack of application of the constitution.”

Indeed, that briefing, on August 26, marked the first, and only, time that Barzani has addressed the Arab media.

Why did he choose to do that then? US policy on Iraq has shifted in a subtle, but significant, way. It has moved away from the Obama-era position: regular deference to Baghdad, rationalized as respecting Iraqi sovereignty.

That was also the easiest approach. One consequence, however, was that Baghdad slid, ever more, under Tehran’s influence. That is what the KRG, US, and Iraq are obliged to deal with now, as they attempt to reverse that shift.

Merely by supporting an earlier US vision of Iraq—including respect for the 2005 constitution, and with it, federalism in Iraq and the acknowledgement of legitimate Kurdish rights—Washington has provided the KRG more room for maneuver, including reaching out to America’s Arab allies.

That, it seems, is why Prime Minister Barzani spoke to the Arab media last week: to explain the KRG position to that audience and work together to promote security and stability in the region. 

Dangers Faced by New Iraqi Government 

Michael Knights, a Boston-based senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, met with many members of the Iraqi delegation, including Kadhimi, and in his report, “Inside the Kadhimi Visit to Washington DC,” he described the challenges that the new Iraqi government faces.

“They are determined and almost recklessly brave,” Knights wrote. The challenges are daunting: dealing with the fall in oil income, caused by the international economic slowdown wrought by the coronavirus; addressing the coronavirus health threat “with a partially collapsed healthcare system that people are afraid to use;” and, above all, running the country “at a moment when militias infest Baghdad.”

“Government policy-makers need to feel better protected,” Knights continued. “On the night of June 25, the Kataib Hezbollah militia” reacted to the arrest of some of its members “by sending an armed column to surround” Kadhimi’s house. “Iraq was simply not prepared for this reaction.”

Knights suggested that Iraq’s international partners need to provide a range of security assistance—and they understand well just what is involved. In addition, when Iraqi leaders come under attack, political or physical, the diplomats in Baghdad representing those international partners need to mobilize quickly, in coordination, to provide the appropriate support.

Still, as Knights noted, the Iraqis were encouraged by their meetings in Washington. They expected a lot of hectoring from the Trump administration. “Failing to fly even though our wings are broken,” is how one member of the delegation put it.

However, they found a realistic perspective, which “came as a pleasant surprise and energized the Iraqi delegation,” Knights stated. “The United States demonstrated that it was clearly willing to keep talking in ever-increasing levels of detail about what Iraq needed in order to economically and politically stabilize, with arms under the control of a stronger state.”

“In terms of this stabilization,” Knights concluded, “nothing is possible without brave top-level leadership and anything is possible if such leadership exists.”

Editing by John J. Catherine