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U.S. Begins Iraq Talks With One Eye on Graft

The State Department is concerned about the progress of Iraqi judicial reforms and the anti-corruption fight, according to a new report.

Anti-government protesters in Iraq
Anti-government protesters demonstrate wearing surgical masks in the central Iraqi holy shrine city of Najaf on Feb. 24. Haidar Hamdani/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is worried that Iraq is falling short on human rights obligations to detainees and is hampered by widespread corruption, according to a State Department assessment obtained by Foreign Policy, as the United States kicks off talks on Thursday that will help determine the future of the U.S. presence in the war-torn country.

As thousands of Islamic State prisoners sit in lengthy and sometimes undocumented pretrial detention that may pose constitutional questions, the Iraqi legal system is bogged down by an insufficient number of judges, overflowing facilities, and the use of bribes, a snapshot of Iraq’s corruption challenges that kicked off widespread anti-government protests last year.

Iraq’s “security situation and political history have left the judiciary weak and dependent on other parts of the government,” said the State Department report sent to Congress in April. “Iraq’s judiciary suffers from the same endemic corruption that affects the rest of the Iraqi government.”

Former U.S. officials also say there is increasing pressure on Iraq ahead of the dialogue to better protect American forces after the Pentagon drone strike that killed the Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani in January led to a spate of Iran-backed mortar and rocket attacks on American troops. The threat of attacks led U.S. troops to pull out of three outlying Iraqi bases in March.

But former officials say President Donald Trump’s administration may be forced to temper its expectations for reforms as it moves forward from the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue on Thursday.

At the beginning of the year, the now-digital gathering might have been front-page news in the United States. In a dizzying 10-day spell that grabbed international headlines, tit-for-tat attacks broke out between the United States and Iran inside Iraq over the death of an American contractor in a suspected Iran-backed rocket attack that culminated in a Pentagon drone strike that killed Suleimani.

Thursday’s function was not staffed at the highest levels. Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who only took office a month ago, did not attend the talks, and on Wednesday he traveled to Mosul to mark the Islamic State’s sacking of the city that became the Iraqi capital of the self-declared caliphate. The discussions are being led by the agency’s No. 3 official, David Hale.

The virus-induced venue will make it difficult for the United States to make progress on Iraq’s imports of Iranian natural gas, for which the Trump administration has reluctantly granted sanctions waivers, and the future role of 5,200 American troops who are in the country only at the invitation of the prime minister.

“My fear is that the expectation is set that we’re going to walk away with this two day Zoom conference with a firm agreement on a residual presence and major deals on flaring gas,” said one former U.S. official, referring to the burn-off of natural gas that costs the Iraqi government billions of dollars in lost revenue each year. “That’s just not going to happen.”

Even as a U.S.-led coalition drove the Islamic State from Mosul three years ago and winnowed the militant group’s territorial holdings to near-zero, Islamic State attacks have scaled up in recent months as Iraq has become a primary battlefield for ongoing American tensions with Iran—though James Jeffrey, the Trump administration’s special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, cautioned that attacks often spike regardless during the holy month of Ramadan, which ended in late May.

But Iraq’s justice system also bears the scars of the Islamic State’s reign, according to the State Department assessment. Baghdad is beset by a lack of capable judges and is accused of holding Islamic State-linked suspects in pretrial isolation for months at a time without contact with the outside world.

Human Rights Watch estimated in December 2017 that Iraqi authorities are holding 20,000 prisoners with suspected ties to the Islamic State. Nongovernmental organizations cited in the assessment, mandated by Congress in last year’s appropriations bill, have said that detainees are constrained in their ability to challenge their arrests and are often forced to pay bribes to get charges dropped.

Though the State Department is concerned about the status of Iraqi reforms, some in Congress see the dialogue as a chance for getting back on solid footing with Baghdad as tensions with Iran appear to have simmered down.

“The United States should use the Strategic Dialogue as a fresh start to engage with Iraq’s new government to create long-term stability in the country,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the foreign relations committee, told Foreign Policy in a statement. “The Trump administration too often treats Iraqi policy as a blunt appendage of their counter-Iran strategy.” 

Murphy, who has pushed back strongly against the State Department’s drawdown of diplomatic personnel, said that the talks represented an opportunity to hold Prime Minister Kadhimi’s feet to the fire on tackling corruption and bringing prosperity to a nation wracked by years of war. “These are lofty goals that will require sustained diplomatic attention and U.S. dollars, but they are critical to long-term U.S. national security and regional stability,” he said.

But as rockets landed in Baghdad’s Green Zone for the first time in months ahead of the talks overnight on Thursday, the United States appears to be no closer to restoring its eroding diplomatic presence. Foreign Policy reported in December 2019 that the United States was on track to reduce the number of diplomats on the ground in Iraq by 28 percent, including cuts to the Baghdad embassy.

According to a State Department report sent to Congress in February and obtained by Foreign Policy, the agency does not plan to resume activities at the U.S. consulate in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city and main port, that was shuttered in September 2018 amid Iran-backed rocket fire.

“We do not foresee the security situation in southern Iraq improving in a way that would permit resumption of operations at the Consulate General in 2020,” the report said. “Maintaining a diplomatic presence in Basrah at this time would involve an unacceptable level of risk to our personnel.” David Schenker, the State Department’s top Middle East official, said Thursday that the Iraqi government renewed its commitment to protect U.S. and international troops during the talks, even as the Trump administration looks at troop cuts. “We are looking at possible force reductions,” Schenker told reporters on Thursday.

Furthering American frustrations, Iraq’s government has often failed to keep Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces in check, despite U.S. requests. “Iran-aligned PMF militias frequently ignore government orders, including court orders, further complicating efforts to provide judicial oversight of their activities,” the State Department reported to Congress in April, using an acronym for the group.   

Corruption fears prompted widespread anti-government street protests last year that took a violent turn when authorities began firing on demonstrators. But the movement has not produced meaningful reforms. The Iraqi government has not yet enacted draft legislation to bar illegal enrichment in government or corrupt lawmakers from holding office. U.S. Embassy contacts “have reported threat of prosecution for corruption or other crimes” is being used by Iran-aligned parties to extort politicians, according to the State Department report.

Former U.S. officials say the ability of the United States and Europe to help fight corruption is limited, despite years of technical assistance from the West.

“So many of these issues are things that the Iraqis have got to do themselves. You have a ghost army and a ghost civil service that’s eating up an enormous amount of public resources,” said Barbara Leaf, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates during the Obama and Trump administrations. “Corruption is just a cancer on the state at this point.”

Yet the Trump administration could risk putting too much pressure on Kadhimi over the presence of Iran-backed militias and importing natural gas from Tehran, as the fledgling prime minister faces a financial crunch and lacks the political capital to take on more entrenched political groups.

“They don’t have money to pay their salaries, by a factor of two,” the former U.S. official told Foreign Policy. “The idea that he can take on the … [PMF] and the Fatah party and he can take on the Kurds and the Sadrists, that’s just delusional right now.”

The U.S. drone strike that killed Suleimani at Baghdad Airport led then-Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to back a nonbinding vote in the Iraqi parliament to eject the 5,200 American troops who are in the country to fight the remnants of the Islamic State.

But Iraqi lawmakers told Foreign Policy that tensions have cooled in the ensuing months as the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the nation’s health care system and Saudi Arabia’s oil price war with Russia has put downward pressure on Baghdad’s biggest source of export revenue.

“The political parties realize that without [the] U.S., they cannot get any financial and economic benefits from the West,” said Sarkawt Shams, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament.

The virus also may have limited the advance of Iran-backed militias that have caused the Pentagon headaches over the past several months. Speaking at an event organized by the Middle East Institute think tank on Wednesday, U.S. Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie said that the coronavirus “may have slowed the tempo” of Kataib Hezbollah, the Iran-backed group that the Trump administration has mostly blamed for rocket and missile attacks against U.S. troops.

Yet even as the State Department and the Pentagon insist that the United States will stay in Iraq until the Islamic State is permanently defeated, former officials aren’t convinced that Trump, who has requested that NATO play a bigger role in Iraq, is on board with the plan.

“I don’t think you ever go into a negotiation saying we must stay,” said a former State Department official, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. “What will this POTUS do if the Iraqis insult him on Twitter based on the strategic dialogue? He’ll pull out.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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