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AFP
April 8, 2021

Iraqi engagement with US upsets pro-Iranians

World

AFP
April 8, 2021

Baghdad: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi faces daily pressure from pro-Iranian groups at home, but that has not stopped him from reaching out to Tehran’s enemies.

After recently visiting or hosting senior figures from pro-US Arab states, his government Wednesday joins a new "strategic dialogue" with Washington under President Joe Biden. It is a fine balancing act for Kadhemi, a former intelligence chief who is a political independent with no party or popular base, and who has now been in office for one year.

Iraq -- still battered and impoverished after the 2003 US-led invasion and the turmoil that followed -- is now a battleground for influence between arch-foes Washington and Tehran. Not a day goes by without a rocket or bomb attack on US troops, contractors or diplomats, or harsh insults levelled against Kadhemi from pro-Iranian groups who accuse him of being an American lackey.

The paramilitaries, and the politicians who back them, insist that Baghdad follow through on the Iraqi parliament’s decision to expel the 2,500 US troops who are still in the country, to help fight the Islamic State group.

The legislature demanded their withdrawal in January 2020 when anger was boiling over the US drone killing ordered by Donald Trump of revered Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and his Iraqi lieutenant in Baghdad.

Despite facing anger from pro-Iran forces, Kadhemi has cultivated ties with Washington’s allies, recently visiting Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and receiving the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers.

With this, he is sending a clear message to Iran, said analyst Ihsan al-Shammari of the Iraqi Centre for Political Thought: "Iraq does not depend on Tehran for its diplomatic decisions, as Iran and its allies demand."

Kadhemi -- who is only supposed to lead Iraq until early elections, possibly in October -- has to balance the interests of the pro-Iranian Shiite camp with those of the Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities.

Those groups, and Washington’s Gulf allies, see the US presence in Iraq as protection from Iran, which backs Shiite proxy forces forces in several regional countries. Western and Iraqi officials say Kadhemi expects the Americans to set a timetable for their withdrawal, but likely over several years. This timetable would maintain international military support against IS remnants while allowing the premier to tell pro-Iranians that he is working to implement the parliamentary vote.