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Is America Kadhimi’s Friend?

Is America Kadhimi’s Friend?

Thursday, 28 May, 2020 - 08:30
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

After the deaths of over 100,000 Americans from the coronavirus, only a few Americans pay attention to Iraq outside the capital Washington. Inside Washington, officials and analysts are thinking about the important bilateral meeting in Baghdad in June with the new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi.


Officials and analysts are watching Kadhimi’s every move. When he visited the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) headquarters and put on a PMF jacket, opinions exploded on social media. That jacket was worth ten thousand words.


There are two camps in Washington about policy towards Iraq. The first camp includes Michael Knights from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Anthony Pfaff from the Atlantic Council who recommend patience and helping Kadhimi become independent of Iran.


Knights earlier this month praised Kadhimi’s reforms to the Iraqi security forces, for example the reappointment of Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saidi to the Counter-Terrorism Service.


This camp urges that Washington give Kadhimi time to reform the Iraqi security forces and continue the bilateral military relationship with Iraqi security forces.


Pfaff said the Americans should utilize their advantage in the fields of economics and finance to help Iraq’s economy and to encourage investment in Iraq from the West and the Gulf. Iran cannot compete in these fields.


In the second camp in Washington are conservative Republicans such as former Vice President Cheney’s aide John Hannah and Hudson Institute analyst Michael Pregent who urge the Trump administration to present Kadhimi a hard choice.


The Iraqi Prime Minister must immediately confront and break the PMF and also reduce economic relations with Iran or Washington will answer with more pressure on Iraq immediately.


This circle of analysts warns that if Baghdad does not end the influence of the PMF and Iran, it will be impossible to maintain political support in Congress for military and economic assistance to Baghdad, especially after the huge costs of the coronavirus.


Hannah in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month even recommended that Washington impose sanctions on Iraqi political leaders, and Pregent suggested sanctions against Hadi al-Ameri from the Badr Corps and against the Fateh bloc which is the second largest political bloc in the Iraqi parliament.


These analysts think that if the situation in Baghdad becomes too difficult, the 5,000 American military forces in Iraq could all redeploy to bases in the Iraqi Kurdish Region. From those bases they could undertake operations in all of Iraq and Syria against any enemy. According to their analysis, it is not America’s problem if the Kadhimi government collapses in Baghdad.


Many American analysts never seem to learn a lesson that former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara highlighted in his memoires from 1995 about the American failure in the Vietnam War.


McNamara recalled the many political and military problems that resulted from the coup that killed South Vietnam President Diem in 1963. President Kennedy and his administration supported the coup but they didn’t know what new government would follow Diem. They didn’t have a plan. They only knew that they didn’t like Diem and they wanted a change. We saw a similar mentality in the Bush administration in 2003 when it brought down the Saddam Hussein regime.


Will the Americans bring down Kadhimi because of his relations with Iran? Among the big economic challenges in Iraq is inadequate electricity production. Iraq must import Iranian energy to provide additional electricity in Iraq, especially the sensitive southern regions.


Former Iraqi Electricity Minister Louay Khatib in April stated that Iraq needs several years to build the infrastructure to be self-sufficient in electricity production.


The Americans gave Kadhimi a four-month period to continue imports of Iranian energy, but they warn that their patience is diminishing. If Washington cannot wait several years and instead imposes economic sanctions, the Kadhimi government risks not paying salaries and would witness big new street protests. If Kadhimi’s government collapses how do Washington and its allies know that the next Iraqi government will be better for regional stability and the fight against ISIS?


If the answer is that bases in Iraqi Kurdistan will be enough, has Washington noticed that the Kurdish Region Government is bankrupt and has serious political problems?


I can understand an argument that says after 100,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States, America’s biggest security threats are no longer in the Middle East, and therefore Washington should reduce its presence and expenses in the region. I do not understand the argument from Washington analysts that insists that terrorism from the Middle East is still a big threat to the United States but possible chaos in Baghdad would be acceptable in order to increase pressure against Iran.


Washington needs an answer before June.


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