- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Americans would do well to pay less attention to negative propaganda about their country and realize that millions of people around the world, including in Iraq, appreciate the United States as a beacon of democracy and a force for progress in the world.

That was a core message Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought with him to Washington this week, even if it was overshadowed by President Biden‘s announcement that the U.S. was ending its combat mission in Iraq, which began in 2003 as a campaign to oust dictator Saddam Hussein.

“One problem of Americans is that they tend to believe negative propaganda against America,” Mr. al-Kadhimi said in a behind-the-scenes discussion with The Washington Times. He said that “Iraqis recognize that the U.S. got rid of an evil dictator and helped build a democracy.”

“Now we are only interested in moving forward,” the Iraqi prime minister told Times columnist Tim Constantine, who also produces “The Capitol Hill Show,” a weekly radio and podcast program. In wide-ranging remarks, Mr. al-Kadhimi also downplayed the threat of an Islamic State resurgence in Iraq and rejected concerns about outsized Iranian influence in Baghdad with the redefining of the American mission there.

Still, with Mr. Biden wrapping up the two-decade U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, the region is watching anxiously to see whether a security vacuum develops and who might step in to exploit it.

Mr. al-Kadhimi responded with a diplomatic touch when pressed on whether Iraq is being squeezed between U.S. and Iranian forces. “Let me be clear: Iraq is a friend of the United States. We are a neighbor of Iran,” he said, smiling warmly to emphasize the nuance of the remark.

The prime minister, a onetime journalist and diplomat, was also optimistic that his country will emerge as a major promoter of regional peace during the years ahead. “Iraq has always played a role in how different civilizations have interacted, both in ancient history and in more recent history,” he said. “Iraq’s role regressed badly in the last 50 years, however, because of wayward rulers. Iraq needs to restore their historic role. We are able to find common language and common interests and are certainly capable of playing that role.”

Mr. al-Kadhimi expressed hope that such forward thinking will shine through regional geopolitical tensions. Those tensions hung in the backdrop of his meeting Monday with President Biden, which could shape the course of his country’s politics for years to come.

ISIS in check?

Some 2,500 American forces are expected to remain in Iraq indefinitely, although Biden administration officials say the U.S. troops’ roles will shift to purely advisory and training.

Still, Mr. Biden stressed Monday that the U.S. will continue to battle remnants of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS. The terrorist group has lost the vast territory it once held in Syria and Iraq but still has many thousands of trained fighters in its ranks. ISIS claimed responsibility for a July 19 bombing in Baghdad that killed 35 people.

Mr. al-Kadhimi told The Times that ISIS controls no territory in Iraq but maintains “sleeper cells” that Iraqi forces are constantly scrambling to disrupt. “We have been successful in that endeavor and have had major groups arrested,” he said. Security forces nearly always succeed in preempting attacks like the one that rocked the Iraqi capital on July 19, the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

“In that attack, on the eve of Eid, [Islamic State militants] planned multiple operations. All others were foiled. More importantly, we captured the cell that planned those attacks,” the Iraqi prime minister said.

Mr. al-Kadhimi said Iraqi forces are now prepared to manage the security situation without major help from Americans. He also said attacks by ISIS remnants should not affect the posture of U.S. forces in Iraq. He told The Associated Press earlier in the week that “there is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil.”

Iran’s rising influence?

Away from the ISIS issue, the matter of Iranian influence looms large for Iraq, particularly as the Biden administration seeks diplomatic outreach to Tehran through a revival of the Obama-era nuclear deal that President Trump repudiated three years ago.

Critics say Mr. Biden‘s broader policy of pushing for a reduced U.S. military role in Iraq amounts to a major gamble that could undercut Washington‘s ability to steer the future of the Iraqi government and military away from rising Iranian influence.

U.S. forces stationed in Iraq and neighboring Syria have come under fire in recent years from Iran-backed militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada. Militants also target U.S. diplomatic facilities in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

U.S. officials say those two militias receive significant financial and logistical support from Iran, even as they operate within the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization of predominantly Shiite Muslim militias based in Iraq. The al-Kadhimi government has been trying to fold the Popular Mobilization Forces into his country’s broader security forces.

The complex dynamic has resulted in friction between Baghdad and Washington, most notably in late June when the Biden administration ordered U.S. forces to bomb what the White House said were “facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups” along the Iraq-Syria border.

The Pentagon said the bombing was a response to attacks by the Iran-backed groups on American interests in Iraq, but Mr. al-Kadhimi issued a statement calling the strike a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty.”

Some saw the comment as a rhetorical attempt to appease anti-American legislators in parliament and Iran. Rulers in Tehran have had their own issues with Mr. al-Kadhimi since the Iraqi prime minister demanded this year that they restrain their militias in the region.

Mr. al-Kadhimi told The Times that his meeting with Mr. Biden was “definitely excellent.” He said the U.S. president “understands Iraq very well.”

A future without war?

Mr. al-Kadhimi underscored that Iraqis view the United States as a positive force in arenas beyond the security realm.

He said his team presented the Biden administration with a “specific five-year plan” for strengthening Iraqi-U.S. ties in ways that could score “major investments” for Iraq from Western corporations.

“We are here to organize our relationship, not just security. We are organizing efforts for the economy, the environment, the scientific and corporate sectors,” the Iraqi prime minister said. “The U.S. has offered us a lot in the way of training and understanding of security. Our troops are now equal to the task.

“Economically, we wish to be liberated from the control of oil revenues,” he said. Iraq‘s goal, he added, is to “diversify to clean energy, agriculture and industry.”

“We are working with the West to conduct and review options and move toward a digital economy,” he said. “Iraq has tremendous economic potential, in part because of the growing population. Iraq has a young population and it is slightly more than 50% female. It increases by approximately 1.2 million people every year. Such population growth requires market growth.”

“We like to look at the glass as half-full,” he told The Times. “Our people do not buy into the anti-American message in general. Of course there are different opinions among different people, but when we look at the development of science, technology and culture … I’m sure history will give credit to the United States for the progress.”

Tim Constantine contributed to this report.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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