U.S. Seeks to Broaden Ties with Iraq, as PM Sudani Makes First Visit to Washington

Sudani will lead a large delegation, including the ministers of oil, finance, trade, and electricity, while Safeen Dizayee, head of the KRG's Department of Foreign Relations, will represent Kurdish interests.
US President Joe Biden (L) and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani (R). (Photo: Kurdistan 24)
US President Joe Biden (L) and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani (R). (Photo: Kurdistan 24)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – The U.S. sees the visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani as an occasion to broaden ties between the U.S,. and Iraq, in accord with the 2008 Strategic Framework, concluded in the last months of the George W. Bush administration, according to a senior State Department official who briefed journalists on Thursday.

This will be Sudani’s first trip to Washington in any capacity, as his personal experience with Western countries is limited. 

In his week-long visit, Sudani will meet with U.S. President Joe Biden, as well as with the Secretaries of State and Defense, and, perhaps, other senior U.S. officials as well. 

Sudani will lead a large delegation that will include the ministers of oil, finance, trade, and electricity. 

In addition, Safeen Dizayee, head of the Department of Foreign Relations of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), will represent Kurdish interests in the delegation.

Read More: Senior KRG Official to Participate in Iraqi PM’s talks in Washington

Listing the objectives that the Biden administration is pursuing with Sudani’s visit, the senior official briefing journalists on Thursday explained in her opening remarks that it involved a wide range of issues. They included increased energy security and independence for Iraq; U.S. business investment; Iraqi banking reforms; as well as strengthening democracy and the rule of law. 

What about the Kurds?

Although the senior official cited quite a number of issues, she said nothing about the Kurds! She said nothing about resolving disputes between Baghdad and Erbil—although that is, of course, an important matter.

So Kurdistan 24 asked about that, including, in specific, the resumption of Kurdish oil exports.. In response, she explained, “We expect that there will be a discussion about the importance of having good relations between Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and Baghdad.”

“It is important to have good relations, obviously,” she added, “for the security and stability and sovereignty of Iraq.”

“There has been progress” in discussions to reopen the pipeline, she continued, describing it as part of the effort to achieve energy self-sufficiency for Iraq.

That pipeline, which carries Kurdish oil to Ceyhan, Turkey, has been closed for over a year, resulting in more than $7 billion in lost revenues. 

Obviously, Kurds and their friends want to see those exports resume. It is unclear what the problem is and why the exports have not yet re-started.

Indeed, two weeks ago, eight Republican Congressmen sent Biden a letter in which they attributed many of the KRG’s problems with Baghdad, including the halt in Kurdish oil exports, to Iranian influence over Iraqi decision-making. 

Read More: Congressmen Call for Baghdad’s Mistreatment of ‘Kurdish Allies’ to End, as Sudani’s Visit to Washington Approaches

The senior official also noted, “There has been progress made on the discussions about salary and budget allocations for Iraqi Kurdistan out of the federal budget.”

Subsequently, she said that there had been progress by both Erbil and Baghdad “to improve the relationship, or, what I would say, to actually come to solutions that have been under discussion for quite a while.”

“We will continue,” she added, “and I personally will continue to encourage creative solutions and urge them to remain in dialogue to find those solutions to build security in Iraq and Kurdistan.”

Other Issues in Sudani’s Visit: Military Matters

Sudani’s meetings will not focus on the future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Rather, that issue is being handled by the U.S.-Iraq Higher Military Commission (HMC.)

The HMC was established in January, and it held its first meeting in Baghdad on Tuesday. Co-chaired by the Chief of the General Staff of the Iraqi Armed Forces, Gen. Abdul Amir Rashid Yarallah, and CENTCOM Commander, Gen. Michael Kurilla, it affirmed both sides’ commitment to “an orderly transition from the mission of the International Coalition for the Defeat of ISIS in Iraq to enduring bilateral security partnerships between Iraq and the United States and other countries of the Coalition,” according to a statement released by the HMC after Tuesday’s meeting.

Asked repeatedly on Thursday about the future U.S. military presence in Iraq, the senior official declined to answer, explaining it was still under discussion and “most likely” would lead to “a second joint security cooperation dialogue later this year.” 

Other Issues in Sudani’s Visit: Economic Matters

The senior official stressed the importance of the economic dimension of Sudani’s visit, including the encouragement of private sector investment in Iraq. 

Meetings will be held with the U.S.-Iraqi Business Council, “and there will be opportunities for American and Iraqi businesspersons to get together and talk about opportunities that we already have seen increase over the last couple years,” she said.

Sudani’s visit includes a meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee (HCC.) The Iraqi co-chair of the HCC will be the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Planning (the U.S. co-chair will be Secretary of State Antony Blinken.) 

The fact that Iraq’s co-chair is the Minister of Planning underscores the significance of the economic dimension of Sudani’s visit for Baghdad.

Does the U.S. Understand the Iranian Threat to KRG Elections? 

The senior official briefing on Thursday was twice asked about Kurdish issues in the context of Sudani’s visit. Neither set of questions involved the Kurdish elections. 

Nonetheless, as she answered the questions, she raised the issue of the Kurdish elections both times. Her repeated reference to the need to hold the elections, as currently scheduled, underscores their importance to the Biden administration. 

But it also invites a question: Does the U.S. understand the problem? Or is there something that inhibits the U.S. from recognizing it? 

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is, far and away, the largest party in the Kurdistan Region. It has over twice the number of seats in the Kurdish parliament as the second largest party: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK.)

That is 45 seats for the KDP versus 21 for the PUK. 

But last month, the KDP announced it was boycotting the vote. 

Read More: KDP sparks political shift in Kurdistan, Iraq amid Federal Court disputes

Why would the most popular party make such an announcement? One would think that the most popular party would be keen to hold elections, while the lesser parties would drag their feet. Indeed, as late as December, that was the KDP position., as it called for the vote to be held in a timely fashion. 

Read More: KDP supports holding Kurdistan parliamentary elections on time, says official

So what would explain the dramatic shift? Maybe, because the KDP came to understand that the vote counting would be corrupted? That is Kurdistan 24’s understanding.

The KDP is the Kurdish party most strongly opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq. Iran has a great deal of influence in Baghdad, including the ability, if it wants, to produce a false vote count.

In addition, in February, Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a provision of the KRG electoral law that had been in effect for the past 30 years—since 1992, when the KRG was established, after Saddam Hussein’s rule ended in the Kurdistan Region.

That electoral law provided for minority representation in the Kurdistan Region parliament, and the minorities tended to support the KDP.

Following the federal court’s decision denying them the representation they had enjoyed for the past 30 years, leaders of the minority communities strongly denounced the court’s decision.

Read More: Kurdistan Region Christians denounce Iraqi Federal Supreme Court’s ruling

But what did Washington say or do? Precious little.

Already in 2022, the federal court had been suborned by pro-Iranian elements in what Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called a “judicial coup.”

In an interview with Kurdistan24 last month, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2005 to 2007, denounced the decisions of that court.

“Iran is very involved in Baghdad,” he said, and it exploits the court, which imposes a centralization of authority which “undermines the basis of the constitution of Iraq.” 

Khalilzad advised that the Biden administration had “to be very attentive to what is being done,” because it appears “Iran and the forces that Iran backs are behind” the court’s decisions that have been so adverse to Kurdish interests. 

Read More: Zalmay Khalilzad: Decisions of Iraq’s Supreme Court Contradict Constitution

Sadly, however, it does not seem that the Biden administration has taken any serious action to deal with the problem.