America’s goals in Iraq appear contradictory
It is more than a year since the last American troops withdrew from Iraq. So where does that leave the US-Iraqi relationship today?
Given the high cost, some $820 billion, and the number of US military casualties, 4,488 dead and more than 32,200 wounded, Washington might have expected the result of the invasion to be a close and enduring relationship with Iraq. In fact, Iraq seems to be fading from the US consciousness with extraordinary speed.
Washington’s reduced effort to influence the country is exemplified by the decision last year to cut the number of US embassy staff in Iraq by as much as half.
Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, draws a simple conclusion: ‘The US wants to forget about Iraq.’
‘Iraq is potentially in the camp of an antagonist, namely Iran,’ he added in an interview from Indiana University in Bloomington, where he is director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East.
Politically, the change in American interest was already on display in the autumn of 2010. After parliamentary elections in March 2010 in which the coalition of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came second, an eight-month power struggle ensued that ultimately saw the US support Maliki to serve a second term. Surprisingly, Maliki was Iran’s choice as well – what the Financial Times then called ‘a rare convergence of interest’ between the two countries.
Since securing re-election Maliki, a Shia, has been criticized for ratcheting up sectarian division. Just days after the US military withdrew in December 2011, Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, on charges of operating a sectarian militia. After fleeing abroad, Hashemi was tried in absentia and sent-enced to death. In December 2012 Rafi’ al-Issawi, the Minister of Finance, a Sunni, had his office raided and 150 staff arrested. Maliki has denied having a hand in the operation. Apart from calls by the US State Department for the Iraqi government to adhere to the rule of law, it has not succe-eded in damping down sectarian tensions.
The US remains the largest supplier of arms and military equipment to Iraq, with the Maliki government signing deals to buy military aircraft including F-16 fighter jets for a reported $12 billion.
But the US has not gained a monopoly on Iraqi military procurements, as seen late last year with Iraq agreeing to purchase $4.2 billion worth of arms from Russia. That deal was later cancelled but the desire for Iraq to seek out competitors to the US remains strong.
US officials have been promoting the need for Iraq to rebuild an oil pipeline running the length of the country, connecting disparate communities as a way of uniting the nation through economic development. But the reality on the ground is different: a struggle between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north over control of oil wealth. The KRG in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, has signed oil agreements with foreign companies – including the US firms Chevron and Exxon Mobil – to the consternation of the central Iraqi government.
The US has stated it too does not want to see the KRG granting oil contracts lest they create further political instability. But the US multinationals seem more active in this fight than their government. ‘Exxon Mobil is voting with their feet. They are indicating how they think it will turn out,’ said Istrabadi. ‘That itself should be sounding alarm bells in Baghdad and Washington.’
Surely Washington does hear the alarm bells; but one has to wonder how com-mitted the US is to preventing further KRG oil contracts from moving forward. This then begs the question: What exactly are America’s goals?
Today the US desires to see political continuity in Iraq, military cooperation with Baghdad, and economic development that ensures the oil keeps flowing – no matter what region it pumps from. These interests appear to be contradicting one another more often than they align. But for now that is good enough. It has to be. Anything more requires a political effort that the US simply does not want to exert.