The Cable

Abadi’s Baggage: Economy, Islamists, Tehran

There were no real fireworks on Day One of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Washington, just the steady drumbeat of closed-door meetings and the promise of $200 million in American humanitarian aid to help Iraqis displaced by fighting with Islamic State militants. But while Iraq is likely eager for more military assistance from ...

President Barack Obama listens as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks after a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office.
President Barack Obama listens as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks after a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office.

There were no real fireworks on Day One of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s visit to Washington, just the steady drumbeat of closed-door meetings and the promise of $200 million in American humanitarian aid to help Iraqis displaced by fighting with Islamic State militants.

But while Iraq is likely eager for more military assistance from the United States and its allies in its bloody struggle with the well-funded and well-armed Islamic State, little was said, so far, about Baghdad’s economic struggles — which will likely be a major focus of the visit.

During a brief question-and-answer session after their meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Obama and Abadi instead spoke to the issue of Iranian military advisors working alongside Iraqi Shiite militias who have been fighting side by side with the Iraqi army.

Obama appeared to brush off the significance of Iranian Quds force advisors who have participated in the war, and instead attempted to pin Tehran’s meddling on the ousted leadership of former Premier Nouri al-Maliki, who was pressured to resign last summer.

“At the point in which Daesh or ISIL was surging and the Iraqi government was still getting organized, I think the mobilization of Shia militias was something that was understood to protect Baghdad or other critical areas,” Obama said.

Now that Abadi’s is in charge, however, “our expectation is from that point on, any foreign assistance that is helping to defeat ISIL has to go through the Iraqi government,” Obama said, using an acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. “That’s how you respect Iraqi sovereignty.”

The Iraqi leader was a bit more circumspect, saying that while he will “welcome any assistance” from neighbors, he won’t “accept any intervention in Iraq or any transgression on Iraqi sovereignty. This is a war that is fought with Iraqi blood with help from the coalition forces and regional countries.”

One of the issues raised in recent days is the stalled sale of 24 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq, which has been languishing since January 2014.

“While the U.S. government is still supportive of this transfer, Iraq has not been in a position to make a final decision” on the purchase, David McKeeby, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, told Foreign Policy.

The initial $4.8 billion offer included items like electronic jamming equipment and hundreds of Hellfire missiles. The Abadi government, which assumed office seven months ago, has not made any moves on the offer.

While the Apache deal is stalled, the United States has sent 1,700 Hellfire missiles, 62,000 small arms, and tens of millions of rounds of ammunition to Iraq in recent months, most recently 250 MRAPs. A shipment of 50 more of the hulking mine-resistant vehicles equipped with front-end rollers to trip buried roadside bombs will be on their way soon, Pentagon officials recently announced. When it comes to the choppers, though, McKeeby said that “we will work with them to support the transfer of Apaches in line with Iraqi needs and financial capacity.”

And that issue of financial capacity is at the forefront of many of the discussions this week. While not a focus of the first day of public comments — which will including a meeting between Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obaidi — the Iraqi economic situation is in bad shape, which calls the Apache sale into question.

Iraq is currently burdened with an unemployment rate estimated to top 25 percent, with a full 40 percent of the national workforce being on the government’s payroll and an economy that is almost completely dependent on oil revenue.

“These conditions also have a trickle-down effect, limiting the Abadi government’s ability to pay out salaries to Iraqi Sunni Arab National Guard units … and to pay the salaries for Shiite Iraqi fighters to transition from [Iranian]-supported militia groups to the Iraqi security forces,” said Nick Heras, a research associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told Foreign Policy.

As a Shiite representing a Shiite political party, Abadi is forced to contend with the political reality that Iran sends cash payments and monthly salaries to impoverished young Shiite men looking to fight the Islamic State, Heras said.

Abadi also will meet with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund this week in Washington in what Heras called a signal to Obama that Baghdad can’t sustain the war against extremists and also simultaneously keep at bay the Shiite militias that are mobilized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

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