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Pence gives new Iraq prime minister a warm embrace ahead of expected U.S. visit

Vice President Mike Pence is giving Iraq’s new prime minister a warm embrace ahead of an expected visit to the White House later this month, saying the administration has high hopes Mustafa al-Kadhimi can return his country to prosperity and peace after two decades of war.

Al-Kadhimi’s visit, which U.S. officials told Just the News could happen Aug. 18-21, comes at a critical time for both Washington and Baghdad.

President Trump is looking for a partner to help him fulfill one of his last open campaign promises — to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq after 17 years of war.

Al-Kadhimi, who earned U.S. trust as the country’s intelligence chief before being named prime minister in April, is looking for urgent help to boost Iraq’s sagging economy, which has been stifled by war, sectarian strife, the pandemic and a sudden drop in oil prices and a shortage of electricity during a long, hot summer.

The need for help grows more dire as Iraq approaches debt ceilings it cannot exceed.

Pence told Just the News in a written statement Thursday night that the Trump administration is eager to assist al-Kadhimi in carrying out his promised reforms and bringing long-term economic stability and security.

“When I visited Iraq last November, I learned firsthand the aspirations of the Iraqi people for a rebuilt and stable nation,” Pence said. “Prime Minister al-Kadhimi is determined to implement reforms that reflect these aspirations, and the United States supports a strong, sovereign, and prosperous Iraq.”

Al-Kadhimi has signaled his commitment to reforms with several moves, including freeing some political protesters and setting new elections for 2021, a year before they were planned.

And his planned first visit to Washington as prime minister has been preceded by some extensive shuttle diplomacy.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the first actions to help al-Kadhimi with an energy crunch shortly after he took over as prime minister, signing a temporary waiver to allow Baghdad to buy badly needed electricity from neighboring Iran without violating sanctions.

State Department officials then held an official strategic dialogue with al-Kadhimi’s new government in June, meetings that ended with a commitment for economic and security assistance ahead.

Late last month, Iraq’s oil minister met U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette to discuss new ways the two countries could jump-start Iraq’s oil industry, including such ideas as a partnership with the semi-autonomous Kurds. “Iraq’s energy sector is full of promise, and together, @ENERGY  can work on policies to chart a sustained energy future for the Iraqi people,” Brouillette tweeted after the meeting.

In between, al-Kadhimi made a brief visit to Iran, where he signaled a desire for better relations with Iraq’s meddlesome neighbor by vowing he would not allow attacks on Iran to be launched from Iraqi soil.

As the meeting between al-Kadhimi and Trump draws near, several ideas have been floating around Washington for how the West can assist Baghdad on its most pressing issues: maintaining and growing security stability, rooting out long-rampant corruption and jump-starting a long-stalled economy made worse by COVID-19 and low oil prices in recent months.

Among the ideas being discussed in official and unofficial policy arenas:

  • Creating an oil marketing and distribution agreement between Iraq’s oil ministry and the Kurdish Regional Government, an idea first floated late in the Obama administration and renewed in recent weeks under Trump as an American energy company has offered its assistance for such a plan.
  • Seeking debt relief and economic investment from some of Iraq’s Arab neighbors
  • Converting some U.S. tax dollars committed to supporting U.S. troops on Iraqi soil in 2021 and 2022 to provide either debt relief or economic investment to help Baghdad to jump-start its economy, produce more electricity and keep its government from hitting its debt limits.
  • Continuing to transfer more of the daily security tasks from U.S. troops to Iraqi forces as the latter continue to improve capabilities.
  • Finding ways to lessen the threat from Iran-backed militias that for years have created violence, strife and chaos on the streets

The stakes and rewards for both country’s leaders are high: Trump is widely known to want to complete his promised drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq, and al-Kadhimi needs signs of rapid economic, political and security progress to strengthen his hold on power to a degree that his predecessors as prime minister failed to achieve.

His call for early elections signaled he knows the populist wave that ushered him into office will be short-lived without measurable progress on such issues as rooting out corruption, providing stable electricity and enhancing security in the face of threats ranging from ISIS to Iran.

Outside observers are watching with intrigue.

The situation in Iraq is a “wide-ranging subject,” Samir F. Ghattas, spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, told Just the News in a statement. “Iraq faces multiple security, political, humanitarian, social and economic challenges.”

Bilal Wahab, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said trade and U.S. troop levels will be the two most important issues being monitored at any summit between al-Kadhimi and Trump in Washington.

And Wahab said the meeting will give Trump an opportunity to define where Iraq ranks in his overall foreign policy strategy.

“Between the United States and Iraq, the main issues are, where is Iraq positioned in U.S. foreign policy? Is Iraq part of a U.S. Middle East policy? Is it to be used for anti-ISIS actions, or is it an arena for the maximum pressure on Iran policy? I think those are questions Washington is not clear on,” he said

“What is missing,” he added, “is a normal relationship between the two countries, where Iraq itself has value that is not exclusively anti-ISIS or part of U.S. policy toward Iran. What is missing is a cultural and diplomatic exchange. A normal, full relationship. This relationship is not normal.”

A Washington meeting will provide “an opportunity to put this relationship on a normal path. If the PM comes to Washington, it will be an important step in a bilateral relationship.” Source