Twenty years of Iraq-US engagement: Where do we go now?

The United States and their ‘coalition of the willing’ invaded Iraq in the Spring 2003, ending the most oppressive regime the country had known for centuries. Eager to see their country becoming a prosperous and forward-looking nation, many Iraqis welcomed the opportunity to see Saddam Hussain’s regime removed in favour of a new one based on democratic values. These aspirations were later translated into a new social contract, the 2005 Constitution, which constituted a roadmap for the country’s nation and the long term state-building process. However, Iraq’s political and security dynamics proved too challenging for both the Iraqis and the international partners to achieve these goals in just two decades.

To date, the 2005 Constitution has not been adequately implemented, state-building has not become a priority and power has not fully transferred from the political parties and the armed non-state actors (ANSAs) to state institutions. Consequently, sectarianism, militarisation and rampant corruption overwhelmed the governing system and became increasingly institutionalised. These rendered a wealthy state dysfunctional, increasingly fragile and unable to provide security or quality services to its people. The Iraqi leaders failed to make the most of the available opportunities and generous international support to help their country regain its sovereignty or the ability to limit the growing influence of both regional powers and transnational ANSAs. Iraq’s instability became worse after the US disengagement and troop withdrawal in 2011, culminating in an exponential rise in violent extremism and ultimate emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in 2014.

Balancing Iraq’s Stabilization and US-Iran Tensions

Defeating IS and saving Iraq from a total collapse became a top priority for both the Iraqis and the international community. The US and the international anti-IS coalition subsequently invested heavily in Iraq, capacity building and humanitarian assistance. They provided support for the development of a modern and professional Iraqi military, capable of defending Iraq’s borders. These efforts brought Iraq and the US closer again and led to the revival of a previously stalled Strategic Framework Agreement. The latter formed the basis for the subsequent Iraq-US Strategic Dialogue for bilateral cooperation, which covers a range of sectors, including security, public health, economy, energy independence, humanitarian aid and cultural and educational exchanges.

In the meantime, the war on IS brought about an exponential growth, in terms of numbers and capacity, of new and existing armed ANSAs in Iraq. These acquired religious, socio-political and legal legitimacy, and became integral parts of the state’s security, as well as policy- and decision-making institutions. Encouraged by Iran, some of these armed ANSAs pushed the successive Iraqi governments to adopt anti-US agendas and demanded a full withdrawal of the US troops from the country. Meanwhile, the US military and diplomatic facilities in Iraq came under frequent aerial (drone and rocket) attacks by Iran-backed ‘Resistance Groups’ (Fasail Al-Muqawama). These groups considered the US military presence in Iraq a strategic and existential threat to their (and Iran’s) interests.

US officials instead stress that they have withdrawn combat troops from Iraq and kept their non-combat presence down to a minimum in order to protect their diplomatic missions and other interests. Any further withdrawal of troops would mean eliminating their presence and influences in Iraq, Syria and beyond. The US appears to consider Iran as the main threat to its vital interests in the Middle East. Thus, their policies in Iraq (at least under President Donald Trump’s Administration) were seen as a part of an overall Iran-containment strategy. The killing of the Iranian General Qasim Sulaimani and the Iraqi Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in January 2020 in Baghdad, underpinned this perception and further complicated the US-Iraqi relations.

Noticeably, since the latest US Administration change, American diplomats have started a campaign aimed at changing perceptions and emphasising the strategic importance of Iraq, in its own right, as well as in the wider Middle East. They insist that the remaining US military personnel are here in Iraq for “training, advising, assisting and intelligence roles”. Whereas their diplomatic Mission in the country is “dedicated to an enduring strategic partnership with the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi people”, in efforts to “support a stable, prosperous, democratic, and unified Iraq”.

In other words, since 31 December 2021, the US security relationship with Iraq has transitioned to an “advise, enable, and assist” role and US officials characterise Iraq as “a voice of moderation and democracy in the Middle East”. Interestingly, the incumbent Iraqi government, led by Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani (inaugurated in October 2022), has reciprocated by engaging the US more constructively. Clearly, it no longer sees the two country’s relationship through the lens of the 2003 invasion. Prime Minister Al-Sudani has explicitly admitted Iraq’s on-going need and appreciation of the US support and outlined his vision for Iraq’s foreign relations to be “balanced” and “based on mutual interests”. Currently, violent extremists, including IS, continue to pose serious threats, while over a million people remain displaced, including Yezidi and Christian minorities. Economic challenges and systemic corruption have become major factors of destabilisation in Iraq. Thus, Iraq needs US and other international partners’ assistance in rebuilding its economic, financial and energy infrastructures; enhancing its military capacity; and tackling major threats such as corruption and climate change.

It is not a surprise that, despite earlier reservations, President Biden’s Administration is actively engaging with the Al-Sudani government. While pressing it to reform Iraq’s banking system, for the most part so as to prevent hard currencies escaping into Iran, the US is also offering assistance to diversify Iraq’s economy and reduce Iraq’s reliance on Iranian gas, by ending Iraq’s gas flare-ups and investing in renewable energy sources. These US pushes have coincided with the growing US competition with China over economic dominance in the Middle East, and with the active European campaign to find alternative (non-Russian) energy sources. Looking into the near future, at least for the remainder of the term of both governments, the current trend is likely to continue and relations between Iraq and the US are likely to become more amicable, predictable and mutually rewarding.

This article was first published by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) on 17 March 2023

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