Marc Lynch

Iraq: Mr. Abdul Mehdi Goes to Washington

 Guest Post by Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress In advance of Iraq’s elections in March, several Iraqi leaders are coming to Washington to meet with Obama administration officials, and Vice President Joe Biden is rumored to be preparing a series of meetings on the subject with the national security principals later this month.  Yesterday, ...

 Guest Post by Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress

In advance of Iraq’s elections in March, several Iraqi leaders are coming to Washington to meet with Obama administration officials, and Vice President Joe Biden is rumored to be preparing a series of meetings on the subject with the national security principals later this month.  Yesterday, the White House hosted Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mehdi, one of two vice presidents and a leading figure in the Shia party Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, in a meeting that didn’t attract any media attention. 

The Iraqi embassy invited me to a small meeting at DC’s Ritz Carlton with Abdul Mehdi, and he said he had just come from the White House meeting with President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden.  The conservation, attended by a small number of the usual Iraq policy nerds from think tanks, was wide-ranging.  Here are two key points, not including one tantalizing tidbit about Iraq’s elections that Abdul Mehdi pulled off the record.   

Wants U.S. disengagement and more mature, but privileged, relationship with U.S.  Abdul Mehdi said that the bilateral relations were moving towards a “more mature” phase, andhe stressed that the Obama administration’s “disengagement policy corresponds to exactly what we want.”  This probably disappointed some of the policy analysts in the room, some of whom have advocated an extended, years-long U.S. presence that goes beyond troop withdrawal timelines agreed to in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement.  Iraqi leaders have been reasserting their sovereignty for years now, and too many Beltway analysts still ignore the reality that Iraqis want control of their country back. They still delude themselves that the United States can constructively direct Iraqi politics through foreign military sales and security force training programs.   

Abdul Mehdi did make the customary pitch that Iraq is a strategic country for the United States in the region, and he also expects “we both will need privileged relations with each other.”  When asked about the size of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad – with reports of expansion plans not receiving much attention – the vice president said he “can’t imagine just a simple U.S. embassy in Iraq.”   

The vice president also raised the importance of economic ties between Iraq and the United States and expressed disappointment that U.S. firms have not invested more in Iraq.  “I wish oil companies would have been more aggressive than Chinese companies,” he said.  This concern – that the United States isn’t moving quickly enough to build more comprehensive economic and cultural ties with Iraq in addition to the military-to-military relationship as outlined in the bilateral strategic framework agreement – is becoming a common refrain from Iraqi leaders I’ve met recently. 

On Iran.  Abdul Mehdi, who noted that on his way back to Iraq he will go via Iran as he often does, said that the United States and Iran were “in many cases, the only two countries that supported Iraq.”   

He highlighted his personal involvement in arranging direct meetings between the United States and Iraq, a “mediation” role he has talked about publicly before.  Many forget that the Bush administration allowed direct engagement between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Iraq.   

The diplomatic impasse with Iran over its nuclear program continues, and Abdul Mehdi offered little on what he thought regarding Iran’s internal fights.  He noted that for decades, Iran was not a “friendly part of regional policies,” and that it was important to try to “domesticate Iran within the rules of the game.”  He also noted that “if Iran wants to make the days of U.S. troops in Iraq a hell, they can do so.” 

Much more was said, in particular about the upcoming elections and recent barring of nearly 500 candidates from the elections as well as the continued swirling rumors about the possibility of a military coup in Iraq.  Iraq has faded from the headlines recently, but as I’ve noted in recent pieces including this one, many issues remain unresolved and Iraq is bound to jump back up higher on the priority list in 2010. 

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