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Will Washington Close its Embassy in Baghdad?

Will Washington Close its Embassy in Baghdad?

Wednesday, 7 October, 2020 - 08:15
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

I was present at the ceremony for the opening of the new American Embassy in Baghdad on the morning of January 5, 2009. The day was sunny but cool. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte former ambassador to Iraq came from Washington wearing a big hat because the intense Iraqi sun bothered his skin.


The American ambassador, Ryan Crocker, said the opening started a new era in Iraq-American relations. Six days before we had returned the Republican Palace to the Iraqi Government, and a new bilateral security agreement put the Green Zone under Iraqi military control and started a three-year period before the withdrawal of all American soldiers from Iraq.


President Jalal Talabani attended the ceremony and thanked the Americans for their help creating a democratic Iraq that would “serve as a model for other peoples.” Under white tents we ate kebabs and cakes, and we hoped for better relations between two states that Ambassador Crocker said must treat each other as equals. I remember that Prime Minister Maliki didn’t attend because he was visiting Iran.


Now, almost twelve years later Washington has taken “an initial decision” to close the embassy because of security. But in 2009 security was much worse in Baghdad. The day of the opening ceremony four car bombs exploded in Baghdad killing four Iraqi citizens and injuring 19. Iran-backed militias launched rocket attacks against the American embassy every few days.


The American employees were happy to move from the Republican Palace to the new embassy because its strong apartment buildings could withstand rockets and mortars. It was so strong and secure that it reminded us of a big prison. After I became the deputy ambassador a few months later in 2009 a rocket hit my house. No one was hurt, and I still have a piece of the rocket on my bookshelf.


In October 2020 security is not worse in Baghdad but politics in Washington have changed. The murder of American diplomatic employees in Iraq was never a political issue between the Republican and Democratic parties. There were never congressional committees to investigate the casualties from the embassy in Iraq and our posts in the country.


However, in 2012 after the murder of the American ambassador in Libya, the Republican Party used the murder as a political tool to damage the credibility of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before her presidential campaign. There were twelve committees for investigations. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was one of the leaders in exploiting the Benghazi tragedy, is a completely political man who wants to run for president in 2020. He does not want any casualty or any security incident in Baghdad to be a new Benghazi the Democrats might use against him. Bilateral relations with Iraq are a secondary concern after his political ambitions.


Our hopes on January 5 suffered other disappointments. President Talabani called the new embassy a symbol of the “deep affinity between the American and Iraqi peoples”. Now at protest marches in downtown Baghdad Iraqi protesters demand the Americans and the Iranians both leave Iraq. Maybe the protesters don’t ask for the embassy to close but they don’t consider the existing relationship is in Iraq’s interest. And on the American side, Ryan Crocker on January 5 told the American media that Iraq after Saddam Hussein valued relations with the United States and the Americans had to continue to work with Iraq with great patience to build a strong relationship.


Now many Republicans and Democrats believe that the Arab World, including Iraq, is less vital to American interests. In an era of the virus and economic crisis, terrorism is a smaller threat relatively. Oil from the region is less important and China is much more important in Washington’s opinion. In 2009 we wanted to build a broad relationship with Iraq. Now Washington threatens to impose financial sanctions on Iraq in 47 days if Baghdad does not take steps to reduce its energy trade with Iran. Pompeo, more than even President Donald Trump, has made the American relationship with Iraq not about 38 million Iraqis but rather about maximum pressure on the ruling elite in Teheran.


Eight weeks ago Iraqi PM Mustapha Kadhimi had a good visit to Washington with new commercial deals and mutual words of praise. What a remarkable change! I don’t know if Washington in the end would close its embassy or impose sanctions on Iraq. And certainly, the Americans won’t withdraw from Iraq entirely.


American military operations in Syria’s Hassakeh province require the logistics base in Erbil remain. Now Washington threatens to close its embassy and impose sanctions. The same American domestic political calculations about casualties and costs, and about Iran apply also to the American presence in Syria.


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