Challenges and Opportunities for U.S.-Iraqi Relations in the New Era | Wilson Center
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Challenges and Opportunities for U.S.-Iraqi Relations in the New Era

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Three experts discussed the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations and efforts to foster a solid relationship within the context of the new U.S. administration.  

On February 15, 2017 the Middle East Program hosted an event “Challenges and Opportunities for U.S.-Iraqi Relations in the New Era ” with Luay Al-Khatteeb, Executive Director, Iraq Energy Institute (IEI), and Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University-SIPA; Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, and President, Institute of Shia Studies; and Denise Natali, Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. Henri J. Barkey, Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Al-Khatteeb began by arguing how the United States and Iraq could begin a new chapter in their relationship. He stated that Iraq had experienced two different sets of U.S. policies since 2003. The first set was heavy engagement under the George W. Bush administration, and the second was lesser engagement under the Barack Obama administration. The second policy created a “significant vacuum” that contributed to security issues, which in turn created an environment for ISIS to flourish. Reflecting on current relations, Al-Khatteeb articulated that the Trump administration could create a turning point in the relationship. He explained how the Trump administration’s travel ban, to keep people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq, from entering the United States, has sent a bad signal to Baghdad. Al-Khatteeb continued by providing reasons for why Iraq is a strategic partner to the United States. First, Iraq has a diverse, secular society, despite the media representing it as radical state. Second, he mentioned that Iraq was a “center of gravity” for Shi’a Islam. Third, as a major resource holder of oil, Iraq has the potential to become an economic hub if the country implements the right policies. In addition, without the continued support of the United States, it will be a challenge to have Iraq act as a federal state.

Kadhim discussed the importance of U.S.-Iraqi relations from an Iraqi viewpoint. He noted the United States is an essential asset to Iraq because it provided vital support in fighting ISIS. As Iraq’s major ally, the United States helps Iraq secure certain financial responsibilities, and the United States is still seen as a broker inside Iraq and regionally. Kadhim then switched to the U.S. viewpoint, stating the United States has many vital interests in Iraq, which include upholding its own reputation. Kadhim also highlighted the United States’ responsibility to stand by Iraq to ensure that it does not become a failed state. He said that in order for Iraq to maintain its sovereignty, it needs to foster a healthy relationship with Iran and the United States needs to ensure that its relationships with Gulf Arab states do not fray. Lastly, Kadhim emphasized that the Bush administration’s engagement with Iraq in 2003 should not be confused with the current engagement of Iraq by President Donald J. Trump.

Natali provided an explanation on how Iraq has become a super “hyper-fragmented” state. With the Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds being three strong, ethno-sectarian groups with no unified regions, Iraq has become hyper-localized within these groups—each group seeks self-rule and protection, which emerged out of a distrust of ISIS. As a result of the hyper-fragmentation, approximately 3.3 million Sunni Arabs have been displaced in Iraq and 1.4 million Sunni Arabs in the Kurdistan region. Despite the problems, Natali went on to say that she did not foresee the breakup of the Iraqi state due to its resilient external borders. Natali also mentioned cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian alliances occurring across communities and localities, which have heads of groups like Sunnis and Kurds working together. If there is to be positive change on the societal level, Natali concluded, the Trump administration would have to enable local partners and build relationships with local communities—something she does not foresee happening.

By Oumama Kabli

Speakers

  • Luay Al-Khatteeb

    Executive Director, Iraq Energy Institute (IEI), and Fellow, Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University-SIPA
  • Abbas Kadhim

    Senior Foreign Policy Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, and President, Institute of Shia Studies
  • Denise Natali

    Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University
  • Henri J. Barkey

    Former Director, Middle East Program