Weakened by pro-Iranian factions in his country, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi will meet with US President Joe Biden on Monday to discuss a possible complete withdrawal of US troops from his country.
White House talks between the two allies come just a week after a deadly attack claimed by the Islamic State group, although Baghdad has declared Sunni extremists defeated more than three years ago.
Kadhemi finds himself squeezed by the influence of Iraq’s other main ally, neighboring Iran, which has long viewed the United States as its nemesis.
Despite the shared enmity of the United States and Shiite Iran towards a resilient ISIS, Kadhemi is under intense pressure from pro-Tehran armed factions demanding the withdrawal of the 2,500 American troops still deployed in Iraq.
Operating under the Hached al-Shaabi, a paramilitary network whose tentacles extend deep into the state, these Shiite factions are accused of having carried out some 50 rocket and drone attacks against American interests this year in Iraq.
“If there is no meaningful announcement on the withdrawal of troops, I fear that pro-Iranian groups will increase attacks against American forces,” Iraqi researcher Sajad Jiyad told AFP.
These concerns are addressed by the leader of one of these paramilitary groups, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, who recently warned that “resistance operations will continue until all American forces have left Iraqi territory” .
Most of the US troops, deployed in 2014 to lead an international military coalition against ISIS, left under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, who welcomed Kadhemi to the White House last August.
The remaining troops are officially classified as advisers and trainers for the Iraqi army and counterterrorism units.
– ‘Sustainable American presence’ –
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, already in Washington for several days, assured the Iraqi media that “the talks will successfully establish a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces”.
But the American media only evoked a “redefinition” of the mission of the troops.
# photo1Ramzy Mardini, Iraq scholar at the University of Chicago’s Pearson Institute, believes there will be no “radical change” in the US position.
The Biden-Kadhemi meeting can be cosmetically “shaped” to help the Iraqi prime minister ease domestic pressures, “but the reality on the ground will reflect the status quo and a lasting American presence,” he said.
Mardini points to “political costs” for Biden if he allows a complete withdrawal of US troops, resulting from the catastrophic “legacy” of the 2011 withdrawal, which created a vacuum exploited by ISIS in its 2014 lightning offensive .
It took a three-year military attack, heavily backed by a US-led coalition at the invitation of Iraq, to retake all the urban centers seized by the Sunni jihadists.
“The last thing the United States would want is to leave Iraq and find itself a few years later facing … a return of IS,” according to a diplomatic source.
ISIS operates today from mountainous and desert areas, activating cells for attacks, including Monday’s suicide bombing on a market in the Shiite district of Baghdad in Sadr City, which officially killed 30 people.
– Electoral calculations –
Beyond the omnipresent security problems, Kadhemi, in power for a little over a year, is grappling with a cocktail of other crises three months before a general election that threatens his mandate.
Severe power shortages, rampant corruption, a spate of militant killings blamed on pro-Iran armed groups, the coronavirus pandemic and declining oil revenues have all fueled further instability.
Kadhemi will therefore also seek a relaxation of secondary US sanctions relating to Iran when he is in Washington, to help Iraq honor crucial transactions with its neighbor and deal with the electricity crisis, according to Jiyad.
Shortages during the sweltering summer heat have been exacerbated by Iran’s suspension of its crucial gas deliveries in recent weeks, amid $ 6 billion in arrears that Baghdad is unable to afford to settle, in part because of US sanctions against Tehran.
# photo2 “The Prime Minister’s visit (to Washington) is inextricably linked to his election campaign,” according to Mardini.
“This is part of an effort to build international and regional support” to help revive a shaky domestic political base, he added.
© 2021 AFP