The US wants to maintain influence in Iraq while drawing down its troops, but France is filling in the void.

There was a bit of irony as Iraq’s new prime minister Mustafa al-Kazimi, travelled to the US to meet President Trump in late August 2020. 

In late 2018 Trump made an unannounced visit to the Ain al Asad airbase in Iraq housing US forces, but failed to meet Kazimi’s predecessor Adel Abdul Mahdi in Baghdad, as diplomatic protocol usually requires, due to security concerns. 

While in the past American presidents made surprise visits to Iraq due to concerns about the nation’s insecurity and insurgency, it is Iraq’s leader who risked his life with his recent trip to the US, the nation with world’s highest rate of Covid-19 infections, even visiting the White House, despite the high number of infections among its staff. It appears out of deference to Trump, Kazimi did not wear a mask nor maintain social distancing. 

Yet Kazimi’s first visit as premier was to the Islamic Republic of Iran, where incidentally he wore a mask and maintained social distance from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Finally, last week French President Emmanuel Macron was the first Western leader to visit Baghdad since Kazimi was appointed in May. (Both wore masks during the visit). What do these trips reveal in an age of Covid-19 diplomacy? 

First, Kazimi is continuing his past predecessors’ balancing act between the US and Iran, but taking a harder stance on the militias affiliated with the latter. 

Second, the Trump administration seeks to maintain influence in Iraq, militarily and economically, as a means to deter Iran, even though it has withdrawn from some Iraqi bases and mulls lowering troop level, while Macron is seeking to project French influence in the region, with trips from Beirut to Baghdad.

The key issue that is central to these trips is the presence of militias in Iraq affiliated with Iran. The US would like to see them disbanded, while Macron called for their integration into the regular armed forces, yet Kazimi has already realised the difficulty of such an undertaking. 

US policy on Iraq’s militias

The Iraqi state officially incorporated its militias as an official unit of the armed forces, even though policymakers in the Trump administration would like to see the Shia militias disbanded, myopically considered as pro-Iranian spoilers to Iraq’s state sovereignty. 

Yet despite American efforts to foster a new Iraqi military, even certain administrations learned to live with militias. The Bush administration depended on the Kurdish militias to keep order in the north and encouraged Iraqi Arab Sunni insurgents to form militias known as the Sahwa movement to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq as of 2007. 

The Obama administration provided air cover to Shia militias, even those aligned with Iran, during the military campaign against Daesh as of 2014. 

On the other hand, the Trump administration has not learned to live with the militias, not out of any concern for the integrity of the Iraqi state per se, but part of its containment of Iran. 

On 3 January 2020 Trump ordered the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s expeditionary Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, and his ally Abu Mahdi Muhandis, leader of Kataib Hizballah, leading to retaliation with rocket and missile barrages against US forces for several months thereafter. In March 2020, American personnel withdrew from Iraq’s al Taji base as it did not possess anti-rocket and missile defence systems.

While Trump has no issue with undermining Iraq’s sovereignty, Macron declared that this trip to Baghdad was “to launch an initiative alongside the United Nations to support a process of sovereignty,” an indirect rebuke to the US and Iran. 

Kazimi’s technocratic premiership

Amidst this proxy war between Iran and the US, and partly in response to violations of national sovereignty, protests in Baghdad and southern Iraqi cities erupted in October 2019, directing their ire at the corruption of Iraq’s political elite and how Iran supported and protected the incumbent government. As a result of the protests, Iraq’s parliament appointed Kazimi as a caretaker prime minister in late May 2020. 

Kazimi was a former intelligence chief, a technocrat from the security sector not connected to any of the major parties. While his background gives him the expertise to improve Iraq’s security situation, he faced resistance Kataib Hizballah, which alleged that as intelligence head he was complicit in providing the US with the information that led to the assassination of Soleimani and Muhandis. 

Kazimi tried to rein in Kataib Hizballah, which continued to attack US forces stationed at Iraqi military bases. He ordered the arrest of 14 members in June 2020, only for them to be released after the militia mobilised in a show of force. 

Just a few days after their release on 7 July, Hisham al Hashimi, an Iraqi security analyst close to Kazimi and critical of the militias and Daesh, was assassinated. 

While the assassins were unknown, it represented the death of a prominent ally of the premier. Kazimi assumed office with the daunting tasks of preventing a resurgent Daesh, controlling a recalcitrant militia, while simultaneously mitigating a pandemic. Faced with these challenges, he travelled to Covid-stricken America to seek a lifeline. 

Kazimi, the US and France

Regarding military matters, Khadimi’s meeting with Trump resulted in an announcement that US troops would withdraw from Iraq, without mentioning a specific date or whether just some of the entire 5,000 strong contingent would remain.

Domestically, Kazimi still faces call from Iraqi MPs calling for a full US withdrawal, and Trump has also promised to end American engagements abroad. This announcement appears as a compromise that pleases domestic constituencies in both countries.

With regards to the economic realm, Iraq and the US signed tentative energy deals with Chevron and General Electric. 

This agreement is the culmination of American lobbying that began in December 2018, when US energy secretary Rick Perry visited Iraq, calling for the nation’s “energy independence,” a cue that Baghdad should stop importing gas from Iran and contract American companies like General Electric and Chevron to develop Iraq’s oil and gas fields.

Yet France outdid the US in this regard. Macron announced developing a civil nuclear energy facility in Iraq to deal with the nation’s electricity shortages, which would give Iraqis not only more jobs, but a more sustainable solution to their energy woes. 

For Kazimi, such outcomes are a victory at a time of depressed global energy demand due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Developing the oil and gas sector is crucial for the premier as the nation’s budget has reeled under the loss of income from this sector, which finances the functioning of the Iraqi state. 

While the US and French energy deals are not formalised yet, in the near time these trips are also an indirect victory for Iran, as Iraq still called for sanctions waivers to import Iranian electricity, admitting Baghdad’s relationship with Tehran still endures, as least economically. 

Ultimately, while Kazimi faced a setback in curbing the power of Hizballah Brigades, he seems well-positioned to leverage a new French emergence in the Middle East and an American-Iranian rivalry as an opportunity, allowing him to assert some sense of sovereignty for Iraq. 

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