US Envoy: We are committed to Iraq 'for the long haul'

President Joe Biden “understands the importance of Iraq, the importance of the US to Iraq, the importance of Iraq in the region,” Ambassador Tueller said.
US Ambassador to Iraq Mathew Tueller. (Photo: AFP/Archive)
US Ambassador to Iraq Mathew Tueller. (Photo: AFP/Archive)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – In a roundtable discussion with journalists in Erbil earlier this week, the US ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller, reaffirmed Washington’s ongoing commitment to Iraq, including to the Kurdistan Region.

Given the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the possibility that the US might also leave Iraq in a precipitous fashion was on people’s minds.

Asked if the US was about to withdraw from Iraq as well, Tueller expressed an unequivocal no.

“I think clearly that is not on the mind of President Biden,” he said.

The US commitment was also a major issue for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) delegation that visited Washington last month in the context of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue.

Read More: KRG hails US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue

As Tueller explained to the Kurdish journalists, Biden “understands the importance of Iraq, the importance of the US to Iraq, the importance of Iraq in the region.”

Without saying so explicitly, Tueller was drawing a clear distinction between Iraq and Afghanistan. For the US, Afghanistan is not strategic territory. It lies some 7,500 miles away—in Central Asia. Mountainous, and undeveloped, Afghanistan is infamous as the “graveyard of empires,” and it appears that the US is about to become the latest great power to fail there.

Iraq, however, is strategic, as Tueller stressed, affirming, “The security of the Middle East is the security of Iraq.”

Moreover, ISIS—the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—remains a serious threat, as US officials, as well as KRG officials, have repeatedly said.

For the past five months, US officials, from President Joe Biden on down, have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to continuing the fight against ISIS, even as they withdraw US forces from Afghanistan.

The most important and authoritative such statement came from Biden himself. On July 8, as Biden reaffirmed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, describing al Qaida as a spent force, he stated, “We are repositioning our resources and adapting our counterterrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now significantly higher: in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.”

And the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is central to combatting terrorism in the Middle East—one of the three regions that Biden identified as important to America’s counterterrorism effort.

Read More: Biden reaffirms commitment to fight against terrorism in Middle East as US leaves Afghanistan

Legal Basis for the US Presence in Iraq: Would be Better, if it were Stronger

The legal basis for the US military presence in Iraq, which also allows it to fight ISIS in Syria, is the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), as Tueller explained.

That accord was concluded in November 2008, in the last months of the George W. Bush administration. Its complete name is “Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq.”

The SFA provides only for the temporary stationing of US forces in Iraq, but not for their permanent presence—as, for example, in Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, or further afield, a number of European countries, as well as South Korea and Japan in Asia.

An effort was made to conclude such an agreement before the US withdrawal in 2011. But neither Baghdad nor Washington wanted it enough to overcome the political difficulties. Iraq’s sectarian prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was not keen on it, and neither was Barack Obama.

As a senator, Obama had opposed a second war in Iraq. After becoming president in 2009, he was not so committed to remaining in Iraq. In his view, Iraq had been the wrong war, while Afghanistan was the right war (the Biden administration, ironically, has reversed that.)

Thus, Obama ended the US military presence in Iraq in December 2011—and in less than three years, ISIS emerged to terrorize the region and, beyond it, the world.

Washington and Baghdad had both made a serious mistake. Maliki was obliged to step down as a condition for Iraq’s receiving US support against ISIS, and he was replaced by Haider al-Abadi.

No change, however, was made to the agreement governing the presence of US forces in Iraq. It remains the SFA. And the SFA states, “The temporary presence of US forces in Iraq is at the request and invitation of the sovereign Government of Iraq.”

Upcoming Iraqi Elections

Iran wants US forces to leave Iraq and uses its Iraqi proxies toward that end.

On January 5, 2020, two days after the US assassination of Qasim Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iraq’s parliament called on all foreign forces to leave Iraq.

However, as Tueller noted, neither the Kurds nor Sunni Arabs attended that legislative session, “and they have always questioned whether it is in Iraq’s interest to call for the withdrawal of those forces.”

Iraq will hold elections in October. What will happen if the pro-Iranian parties are victorious and tell the US to leave? That question was put to Tueller.

Tueller replied by noting that even among the Shia parties, there is no consensus on this point. He noted that the communique from the recent US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue “was really welcomed by the main political parties, particularly the main Shia political parties.”

Some “elements that style themselves as the ‘resistance’” expressed opposition to it, Tueller explained, “but I saw important statements from Fatah party leaders, from Sairoon party leaders, from Nasr and others that all said that what the prime minister has done and achieved, we welcome,” because it is “consistent with Iraqi interests.”

Tueller was asked for further clarification: “If there were a demand for withdrawal, that would cover all of Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region?”

“Yes, we would have to,” Tueller replied.

October’s vote will likely result in a weak, coalition government, as previous elections have. Most probably, the next Iraqi government, even if it wanted to, would lack the authority to demand a US withdrawal. However, that is not 100% guaranteed, and it clearly would be better if it were.

Other Challenges: PKK’s alignment with Hashd al-Shaabi

In addition to ISIS—and fighting that terrorist organization remains the mission of US forces in Iraq—the Kurdish journalists raised other issues with Tueller.

Asked about the conflict between the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and Turkey, which is too often conducted in areas of the Kurdistan Region, Tueller began by noting that the US had named the PKK a terrorist organization many years ago.

“It has a long history of attacks against civilians, attacks against interests in Turkey,” Tueller said. The PKK is “often clashing with Peshmerga or engages in activities that are creating instability, causing villagers and others to have to vacate” their lands and “inviting in the military presence of Turkey without the concurrence of the Iraqi government.”

The PKK “has found ways to operate within Iraq,” he continued, in part because it can “operate in remote areas that are difficult to access.”

It also “takes advantage of the weakness of the Iraqi state” and its inability “to project its influence and presence in all areas of the country,” Tueller said.

In some respects, the PKK “has become an ally with—and we see an intertwining of the PKK with—some of the armed, non-state Shia militias,” Tueller said, alluding to pro-Iranian militias within the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF.)

Tueller cited Sinjar, the homeland of the Yezidis, who were targeted by ISIS’ genocidal assault in the summer of 2014. Many Yezidis have been unable to return home, because of the continued insecurity in Sinjar, and they remain in camps.

Last October, the KRG and the Iraqi federal government concluded an agreement on Sinjar with the aim of restoring security there to facilitate the return of the displaced Yezidis.

Read More: Baghdad, Erbil to finalize new Sinjar security plan: KRG official

Tueller praised the Sinjar accord as “a good agreement,” calling it “the basic model that we think will help ultimately resolve the issues in Sinjar.”

For the most part, however, the agreement has not been implemented, blocked by the continued presence of the PKK and PMF.

“There are elements of the Hashd [PMF] that do not want to withdraw from the area and have disregarded the orders of the commander-in-chief to do so,” Tueller explained.

“The PKK, which is present there, has not really withdrawn either,” he continued. “Maybe, they’ve gone to the outskirts of the city, but they still maintain their presence there.”