US, Iraq launch strategic talks on economy, American troops

BAGHDAD (AP) — The United States and Iraq launched much-anticipated strategic talks Thursday that are to span the gamut of their bilateral relations, with Washington prioritizing the issue of the future of its forces in the country while Baghdad is expected to focus on the nation’s dire economic crisis.

The talks, which began with an initial meeting in the afternoon with participants tuning in online because of the coronavirus measures, are expected to drag out over several months. They come against the backdrop of soaring tensions following the U.S. airstrike in January that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani just outside the Baghdad airport. Iran’s expanding influence in Iraq is also expected to be an underlining topic in the talks.

Along with the Iranian general, the January airstrike also killed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Outraged, Iraqi lawmakers spurred by Shiite political factions, passed a non-binding resolution to oust U.S.-led coalition forces from the country following the attack.

However, relations have improved since new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi took over the helm of Iraq’s government last month, marking a new chapter in Iraq-U.S. relations following the exit of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, under whose administration ties had cooled. Some parties, notably parliament’s Iran-backed Fatah bloc, continue to call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

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“The first stage will try to set the tone and agenda for the talks and lay on the table some of the urgent issues up for discussion,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst and visiting fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. But it may prove to be a long uncertain process punctuated by U.S. presidential elections in November, he said.

Thursday’s session was held virtually due to flight restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus. Iraq has seen a recent flare up in cases, with authorities having reported over 16,600 infections so far and at least 457 deaths.

David Schenker, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said that the session was “productive.” He that said a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops was not discussed and that the Iraqi government pledged to get control of the country and unify the security services.

The U.S. team was led by David Hale, undersecretary for political affairs, and pressed issues such as the future of the U.S. forces in the country and security concerns spawning from armed militias in Iraq, early elections and violence against protesters.

Iraqi and U.S. officials said they support a scheduled withdrawal of forces from Iraq, but questions remain over time-frames and the scope of the threat posed by the Islamic State group. Officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

“The talks will focus on the need for Iraq and America to fight IS, in light of that we will make a decision,” al-Kadhimi told reporters on Wednesday.

The Iraq team, lead by Abdul Karim Hashim, the deputy minister for foreign affairs, outlined Iraq’s economic concerns at a time when oil prices have reached historic lows, leaving the crude-dependent state struggling to pay public wages.

“Probably the most important thing for the vast majority of Iraqis is how can the U.S. can assist Iraq in this very difficult period,” said Jiyad. And on the American side, “whether they see value in supporting Iraq apart from security.”

Schenker said the U.S. would support the new government through international financial institutions to help meet the parallel challenges of the pandemic and plummeting revenues from oil sales.

In a sign of support for al-Kadhimi’s administration, hours after he was sworn in, the U.S. approved a 120-day sanctions waiver enabling the country to continue importing Iranian gas and electricity to meet its power needs. Iraq’s progress in becoming more gas independent is also on the agenda as future waivers depend on Baghdad reducing its reliance on Tehran for energy needs.

Iraqi officials have said plans are being drawn up to capture associated gas currently being flared in oil fields in Iraq’s south. However, Baghdad last week signed a two-year contract with Iran to continue importing Iranian electricity.

“On the American side as well, I think, particularly with the Trump administration, a lot of this is about Iran, whether they admit it or they don’t admit it,” said Renad Mansour, senior research fellow at Chatham House. In particular, he said, the U.S. concern has been whether Iraq can prosper as a country without being drawn into Iranian influence.

Late Wednesday, a Katyusha rocket fell just a few hundred meters (yards) from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, the latest of several incidents targeting the American presence in Iraq in recent months. The U.S. has repeatedly blamed Iran-backed Iraqi militias for the attacks.

Schenker said the rocket attack the previous night highlighted why the strategic dialogue is necessary, adding it was not “normal” for states to have their embassies routinely attacked. He said the Iraqis had committed to “moving ahead and undertaking their obligations.”

“Iran-backed Shiite militias remain a significant problem and challenge for the al-Kadhimi government,” he said.

Tackling the issue of militia groups operating outside of the state is “complicated,” said one Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. “We have communicated that to the Americans.”

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Associated Press writer Matt Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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