There have been three high-profile and surprise American visits in Iraq from Christmas into the first week of January. The first included President Trump’s surprise visit to Iraq, followed by an unprecedented stroll by a Marine general through the heart of Baghdad, to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip on 9 January.
The rapid fire visits raise questions about what Washington hopes to achieve by these spectacles, designed for public consumption in both the US and Iraq?
Each one of these choreographed events are an American declaration that despite Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, which critics argue hands over the country to Iranian control, the US can still project its influence in the region.
While the visits are messages to Iraq’s neighbor Iran that American influence in Iraq is still paramount, they raise issues of violating Iraq’s sovereignty, which will only rile Iraqi public opinion and strengthen the hand of the pro-Iranian factions in power.
Presidential Visits to Iraq/Historical context
Trump’s unannounced visit to the Ain al Asad airbase in Iraq housing US forces during the holiday season caused controversy as he failed to meet Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, as diplomatic protocol usually requires.
The failure to do so was explained by the Trump administration as due to logistical difficulties, yet examining past American presidential visits to Iraq may provide a clearer answer.
George W Bush made a surprise visit to US forces stationed in Iraq in November 2003 for Thanksgiving, under the cover of secrecy, spending a total of two-and-half hours in the country. The visit was primarily a morale lifting gesture, dining with the 600 troops at an airport hangar.
Despite the secrecy of the visit, he still met with four members of the Iraqi Governing Council, the interim body ruling Iraq until the final transition of sovereignty in the summer of 2004.
Trump failed to meet a single Iraqi official during his visit.
The more famous, or infamous visit Bush made to Iraq was in December 2008, visiting former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al Maliki. During a press conference an Iraqi journalist threw both of his shoes at the American president, perhaps a precedent that Trump hoped not to repeat.
While Trump’s rationale for not visiting the Iraqi prime minister is speculative, what is definitive is that the trip was seen as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty.
The militia leaders sympathetic to Iran that now form the Bina bloc in the Iraqi parliament denounced Trump’s visit. Qais al Khazali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al Haq militia, tweeted: “Iraqis will respond with a parliamentary decision to oust your [US] military forces. And if they do not leave, we have the experience and the ability to remove them by other means that your forces are familiar with.”
Falih Khazali, another militia leader-politician in the Bina bloc declared, “The American leadership was defeated in Iraq and wants to return again under any pretext, and this is what we will never allow.”
There are 5,200 US troops in Iraq, serving in an advisory capacity to the Iraqi military, whose original mission was to help combat ISIS (Daesh) after its invasion of Mosul in 2014. With Daesh retreating to the peripheries of Iraq’s countryside, these Iraqi politicians, much to Iran’s approval, have called for the withdrawal of these US forces.
This bloc’s indignation only intensified when US Marine General Austin Renforth, accompanied by an Iraqi general, went through a walk in downtown Baghdad. The ability of an American general to do this with relative lack of concern for his safety declared that life has returned to a relative level of normalcy in the Iraqi capital, which had just opened the heavily fortified “Green Zone,” after 15 years, the quarter housing Iraq’s politicians and US embassy.
However, Asaib Ahl al Haq, the group that denounced Trump’s visit, also saw the General’s trip as a sign that American forces would return to the streets of Iraq, threatening that its militias would also redeploy if that were the case.
The rival of the Bina bloc, the Islah bloc led by cleric Muqtada al Sadr also denounced the walk through Baghdad as “barbaric behavior.”
Defending the Trump Administration’s Policies
The final surprise visit was made two days after the General’s, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Baghdad, adding this stop to his scheduled eight-day tour of Middle East capitals.
Perhaps to smooth things over after Trump’s Christmas visit, Pompeo met with the Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and other leaders from Iraq’s parliamentary blocs.
Pompeo’s had two goals; first, to reassure regional allies of American commitment despite President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops in Syria, and second to rally regional allies against Iran.
While this third American trip to Iraq generated relatively little controversy in Iraq, it may do little to mend Iraq’s relationship with the Trump administration that had been strained from the outset.
His relations with Iraq were volatile to begin with after, first, including Iraq on the travel ban.
Second, he is not credited by Iraqis for defeating Daesh in Iraq, as that campaign was set in motion by the Obama administration.
It is no surprise that the expulsion of US troops are being called for from Iraqi MPs after Trump’s visit. The US withdrawal from Syria demonstrates Trump is not committed to maintaining an American presence in the region, and this might be the opportunity for anti-American Iraqi politicians, some but not all of whom are pro-Iranian, to end the US involvement in Iraqi affairs as well.
At the end of the third trip by an American to Iraq, Pompeo did not take any questions from the press during his trip, and he did not appear alongside any of the Iraqi politicians for a formal news conference, perhaps fearing that a shoe might be thrown at him as well.
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