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Will Biden and Kadhimi Produce Platitudes on Iraq?

At the White House on Monday, the Iraqi leader needs a guarantee that Biden won’t use Iraq’s independence as a pawn in negotiations with Iran.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National.
Iraqi prime minister speaks in Berlin.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Oct. 20, 2020. Christian Marquardt/Pool/Getty Images

At a military parade in Baghdad in late June, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi saluted the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of largely Iranian-backed militias. Smiling broadly, he had his arm around the militia group’s deputy chairperson, Abdulaziz al-Mohammadawi (known as Abu Fadak), who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in January.

Exactly one month later, Kadhimi will arrive in Washington, where he is expected to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday. Will Kadhimi be smiling just as broadly? In their public statements, the two leaders will likely repeat familiar diplomatic platitudes, including their continued commitment to fighting terrorism and maintaining Iraqi sovereignty in the face of outside meddling. However, Biden, Kadhimi, and everyone in attendance will know full well the threat of terrorism will keep growing without a clear strategy to curb it and Iraqi sovereignty is being breached every day—including by the Iranian-backed militias that paraded before Kadhimi in June.

Kadhimi, like his predecessors over almost two decades, spends much of his time trying to maintain an unstable balancing act between the United States and Iran, the two primary backers of the Iraqi political system since 2003. However, even though U.S. and Iranian interests sometimes overlap—in fighting the Islamic State, for example—the two countries’ goals are at opposite ends. Iran wants Iraq to become a theocratic state closely tied to Iran’s Shiite leadership while the United States ultimately wants a civic, federal Iraqi state to emerge. In turn, Iraqi politics lurches from one direction to the other, trying to maintain support from both Washington and Tehran. Being pulled from two sides, Baghdad is on the verge of losing its balance.

At a military parade in Baghdad in late June, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi saluted the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of largely Iranian-backed militias. Smiling broadly, he had his arm around the militia group’s deputy chairperson, Abdulaziz al-Mohammadawi (known as Abu Fadak), who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in January.

Exactly one month later, Kadhimi will arrive in Washington, where he is expected to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday. Will Kadhimi be smiling just as broadly? In their public statements, the two leaders will likely repeat familiar diplomatic platitudes, including their continued commitment to fighting terrorism and maintaining Iraqi sovereignty in the face of outside meddling. However, Biden, Kadhimi, and everyone in attendance will know full well the threat of terrorism will keep growing without a clear strategy to curb it and Iraqi sovereignty is being breached every day—including by the Iranian-backed militias that paraded before Kadhimi in June.

Kadhimi, like his predecessors over almost two decades, spends much of his time trying to maintain an unstable balancing act between the United States and Iran, the two primary backers of the Iraqi political system since 2003. However, even though U.S. and Iranian interests sometimes overlap—in fighting the Islamic State, for example—the two countries’ goals are at opposite ends. Iran wants Iraq to become a theocratic state closely tied to Iran’s Shiite leadership while the United States ultimately wants a civic, federal Iraqi state to emerge. In turn, Iraqi politics lurches from one direction to the other, trying to maintain support from both Washington and Tehran. Being pulled from two sides, Baghdad is on the verge of losing its balance.

In maintaining its influence over Baghdad, Tehran is increasingly following the same playbook as elsewhere in the region: undercutting the legitimate government through nonstate militias, just like it does with its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Meanwhile, Washington is developing a Middle East strategy that prioritizes avoiding confrontation with Iran while putting the onus of pushing back against Tehran’s regional expansionism on Arab states. A stable Iraq capable of governing itself is integral to the U.S. vision’s success.

Above all, Kadhimi must seek a guarantee from Washington to support Iraq’s independence and not use it as a pawn in negotiations with Iran.

Next week’s U.S.-Iraqi summit coincides with accelerated U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. As the Kabul government scrambles in the face of a Taliban resurgence, questions are being asked all over the Middle East and beyond about the reliability of the United States as an ally. That makes it all the more important for the Biden administration to prove its continued strategic commitment to Iraq—as an example of Washington’s reliability. Instead, the administration’s approach is another demonstration of inconsistency.

There are three possible outcomes of next week’s meeting. The first one is all too familiar: a photo opportunity for a foreign leader at the White House. Kadhimi can seek to capitalize on being received by Biden like other important leaders. That won’t be enough for the audience at home though, where few Iraqis are in the mood to see Kadhimi basking in U.S. support while the situation in Iraq is getting worse—from more than 160 people killed in two hospital fires to a horrific suicide attack in Sadr City that killed at least 35 people to COVID-19’s devastating third wave, which Iraq is currently battling.

The second possible outcome is a substantive meeting that can positively impact the course of events, not least Iraqi national elections in October. Biden could pressure Kadhimi to rein in the corruption that undermines the Iraqi state and focus on rebuilding the country’s economy. Last May, the World Bank issued a scathing report on Iraq’s human capital crisis. Among the Middle Eastern and North African countries studied, only in war-torn Yemen do young people have worse prospects to contribute to the workforce and society. The Biden administration claims to have a values-driven foreign-policy agenda. If that is true, then Biden must promote the values of justice and dignity in Iraq. He could start by demanding accountability for those responsible for the killing of activists and protesters. Furthermore, this year’s elections have to be free and fair. Biden must also encourage Kadhimi to take a robust position against the various militias in Iraq, especially those backed by Iran—and assure him of U.S. support should he choose to do so.

In turn, Kadhimi should get Biden to commit to a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq that is not limited to fighting the Islamic State. U.S. support is needed to curb all armed nonstate groups and for the Iraqi army and police to provide security. Above all, Kadhimi must seek a guarantee from Washington to support Iraq’s independence and not use it as a pawn in negotiations with Iran.

The third possible outcome—and the most concerning one—is a brief, perfunctory meeting with no tangible follow-up, demonstrating a clear lack of U.S. interest in Iraq. Such an outcome would greatly weaken Kadhimi, who has already lost much goodwill among Iraqis, and undercut those in Baghdad promoting a Western-oriented Iraq.

The impact of the Biden-Kadhimi summit will reach far beyond Iraq. Governments from Lebanon to Yemen will be monitoring the seriousness of Biden’s approach. If the only group Biden mentions is the Islamic State, then these countries will know to expect more trouble ahead. By ignoring the militias, Biden will have given the green light for them to gain more control in Iraq and heavily influence the October elections.

With elections just around the corner, Kadhimi’s window to impact lasting change in Iraq is closing. His opponents are intent on ensuring he does not form the next government, and his allies are increasingly worried they may pay a heavy price for standing up to the militias should a pro-Iranian coalition aligned with the militias win power in October.

Kadhimi’s time is tight, and Biden’s time to focus on Iraq is limited. There are good reasons to be skeptical that a breakthrough can be achieved. But the White House summit could provide a rare chance of delivering results that help Iraq, its people, and the entire region.

Mina Al-Oraibi is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National. Twitter: @AlOraibi

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