Saturday, September 18, 2021
Sept. 18, 2021

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Rubin: Helping Iraq makes sense for U.S.


President Joe Biden declared on Monday that the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would cease by the end of this year. But he also made clear that U.S. forces — probably most of the 2,500 now in the country — would be rebranded to “train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS.”

Unlike his abrupt end to the “forever war” in Afghanistan, Biden wants to deepen a strategic partnership with Iraq.

Moreover, the White House wants to help Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, an unusual Iraqi leader and former human rights crusader. He is trying to pull together a country fragmented by sectarianism, corruption and Iranian meddling.

Aiding Iraq makes strategic sense, given Baghdad’s geography at the center of the Middle East. Al-Kadhimi’s government has enhanced frayed Iraqi relationships with its Arab and Turkish neighbors.

A stabilized Iraq could provide an anchor in an increasingly chaotic region. But that goal often seems as distant as a desert mirage.

So I interviewed the Iraqi leader at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., about what he hopes to achieve and why he welcomes further U.S. help.

To understand al-Kadhimi’s goals — and why he deserves U.S. backing — pay attention to his background. His surprise ascendance to the prime minister post in May 2020 came after months of demonstrations by frustrated Iraqi youths demanding an end to massive government corruption and militia violence. Hundreds of demonstrators, many of them poor Shiite Muslims, were assassinated by snipers, presumably by Iran-backed forces.

Al-Kadhimi came to office promising justice for the dead youths, and reform of a government in which parties based on ethnicity (Kurdish, Arab, etc.) and religious sect (Shiite and Sunni) divide the spoils. The Iraqi leader insists he has made progress in curbing pro-Iranian militias and can make more if the United States stays engaged.

“Definitely the circumstances of Afghanistan are different from Iraq,” the prime minister told me. “Iraqi troops have reached the stage, via U.S. training and capacity building, where they can play a full role.”

His focus, and the White House’s, he said, was on “a long-term strategic partnership,” including “training, intelligence assistance, and cooperation on science, the economy, education and issues related to the environment. These are signs of countries building a relationship.”

But would Iran accept the continued presence of American troops — for whatever purpose — on Iraqi soil?

“This is an Iraqi affair,” al-Kadhimi insisted. “We will be clear to friends and neighbors that we pursue Iraqi interests. I am an independent prime minister.”

Al-Kadhimi rejects critics who demand that he take on the pro-Iran militias directly with military action. “I don’t want to get the Iraqis and myself into further bloodshed,” he insists. “I don’t want the Yemeni (civil war) model. I need patience to build the nation.”

I asked whether the U.S. wants him to strike back at militias militarily, or act as a buffer versus Tehran. “I won’t accept,” he replies, “and I am not being asked.”

For al-Kadhimi, the route to stability lies in strengthening Iraq’s economy and state institutions, with help and investment from the U.S. and the West. But Iraqi youth — deprived of electricity, jobs and hope for the future — are impatient. Protesters are calling for boycotting the upcoming election.

Meantime, Iran — which shares a lengthy border with Iraq — and the Shiite Muslim faith with a majority of Iraqis continue to meddle, all the more when relations between Washington and Tehran grow more tense.

Al-Kadhimi, however, perseveres. “I understand young people’s frustration,” he said. “Reform takes time.”

Would he accept a second term, if a new parliament chose him again after elections? “I accepted this role to serve my country. If there is an Iraqi consensus, we will see.”

Meanwhile, it’s worth the U.S. effort to buy al-Kadhimi more time.