Oil, investments and Iran’s presence at the centre of Kadhimi’s US visit

Iraq’s pro-Iran factions wary that Kadhimi’s visit to Washington could boost the PM’s standing and popularity at home.
Friday 21/08/2020
US President Donald Trump meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, August 20. AFP
US President Donald Trump meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, August 20. (AFP)

WASHINGTON – Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s official visit to the United States and his meeting Thursday with US President Donald Trump have shown that Iraq has returned to square one in its relationship with Washington, and that oil, energy, investments and the strategic Iranian dimension in Iraq are at the centre of this relationship, which the Trump administration has succeeded in controlling.

Trump said that American companies participate in many oil exploration projects in Iraq, while Kadhimi announced that his country welcomes American companies and investments.

Clearly, the economic dimension of the visit overwhelmed other aspects and grabbed everybody’s attention, after Iraqi Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar revealed that the oil ministry had signed agreements with major US companies worth billions of dollars to develop infrastructure in the refinery and gas sectors and to establish a new energy company in Dhi Qar governorate.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi listens to US President Donald Trump in the White House, August 20. (REUTERS)
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi listens to US President Donald Trump in the White House, August 20. (REUTERS)

Still, however, the political dimension, especially with regard to the power struggle with Iran, was a pivotal element in the statements of the American president, who said his country has a limited number of soldiers in Iraq and that the goal of their presence was “to help the Iraqi people” should “Iran do anything,” in a clear indication that among the Trump administration’s top priorities in Iraq is breaking Iran’s grip on Iraq, something that neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama had been able to do.

According to the official Iraqi News Agency, Trump informed the Iraqi prime minister of Washington's commitment to the rapid exit of the international coalition forces from Iraq within three years.

The agency quoted Trump as saying during the meeting: “We have been taking our troops out of Iraq fairly rapidly,” adding, “we’ve brought it down to a very, very low level.”

He also affirmed his commitment to “a speedy exit of the coalition forces within three years,” adding that he has “developed a very good relationship” with Kadhimi.

Before leaving for the United States, Kadhimi received over the weekend Esmail Qaani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It was later leaked that the Iraqi PM refused Qaani’s request to convey messages from the Iranian leadership to Trump.

In the span of just a few hours between his arrival in Washington on Tuesday evening and his meeting with Trump yesterday evening, Kadhimi held a series of meetings in Washington, including with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, International Monetary Fund head Kristalina Georgieva and members of the Businessmen Forum and the American Chamber of Commerce.

The Arab Weekly learned from Kadhimi’s entourage in Washington that initial understandings between the Iraqi delegation and the US side regarding the energy sector were very promising, with significant contracts in the fields of electricity and gas signed with major American companies worth more than $4 billion.

In his meeting with Pompeo, the Iraqi PM discussed “the most important files of common interest, and ways to develop relations between Iraq and the United States at various levels and in various fields.”

US President Donald Trump speaks during his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi in the White House, August 20. (AFP)
US President Donald Trump speaks during his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi in the White House, August 20. (AFP)

Also discussed during the meeting were the topics of economic relations and cooperation in the fields of development and investment, fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as bilateral cooperation in the areas of combating terrorism and the strategic dialogue between the two countries.

After the meeting, Pompeo stated that “armed groups are still causing many problems in Iraq,” expressing his hope for “a corruption-free Iraq.”

“We are committed to helping Iraq stop foreign interference and improve relations with neighbours, and this is what the Iraqi people want ... a prosperous country,” he added.

He continued, “there are private investments in Iraq ... We hope for a corruption-free Iraq,” noting that “the energy file was discussed with the Iraqi delegation.”

Pompeo confirmed “Washington's support for the upcoming elections in Iraq,” noting that Iraq and his country “share goals, sacrifices, vision and hope for the future. These values lead to a stable and fruitful partnership.”

In his meeting with the head of the International Monetary Fund, the Iraqi PM discussed “concluding an agreement to support the Iraqi economy and reduce its dependence on oil, by rehabilitating other sectors and making them compete with the oil sector in a way that can absorb unemployment in the country.”

During his meeting with a number of members of the Businessmen Forum and the American Chamber of Commerce in the presence of Energy Minister Dan Brouillette, Kadhimi referred to "the importance of sustainable strategic cooperation with the United States, and with American companies and banks,” and stressed his government's readiness “to remove all obstacles facing American companies working in Iraq.”

He stressed that “investment opportunities are available to American businessmen and companies,”and called on American banks to cooperate with Iraq “in the development of the Iraqi banking system, to keep pace with international banks as the basis for a major economic openness.”

Observers say that Kadhimi’s openness to economic cooperation with the United States in this overt and direct manner clashes with the aspirations of the Iraqi militia leaders loyal to Iran, who prefer Baghdad not to deal economically with strong countries capable of protecting their interests.

The bilateral committees between the two countries were no less enthusiastic and direct in their public endeavour to develop the partnership between Iraq and the United States. The two sides agreed on holding “separate technical talks to manage the timelines and move to the next stage, including any related redeployments outside Iraq.”

However, the news coming from the US capital predictably displeased certain Iraqi parties, especially militias affiliated with Iran and their political arms, which see close relations between Baghdad and Washington as the most serious threat to their plans to swallow up the Iraqi state.

Although big airport ceremonies, as part of the protocol for receiving heads of state and senior officials, have gone out of fashion, the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq militia led by Qais Khazali, one of the most loyal Iraqi militias to Iran, found nothing better to prove the failure of Kadhimi’s official visit to Washington than to take issue with the way the prime minister was received at the airport.

According to Abdul Amir al-Taiban, the spokesperson for the political arm of Asa'ib militia, “the humiliating way the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was received by the Americans reflects first of all their arrogance and rudeness to others, and secondly indicates right from the beginning the failure of the visit.”

Although Kadhimi and the Iraqi delegation were received with the appropriate full formality and pomp and were transferred to their place of residence in Washington in an imposing motorcade, al-Taiban described the way Americans dealt with the visiting delegation as reflective of the way "the victorious deal with the defeated, the strong with the weak and the arrogant with the servile.”

Observers say that Taiban’s angry rhetoric, which was not based on any objective assessment of the facts or diplomatic experience, translates the great anxiety prevailing among Iran's followers in Iraq, and their fear that Kadhimi’s visit to Washington would boost his standing and popularity with the  Iraqi public.