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Pompeo can’t convince Iraq to antagonize Iran to please the US, experts say

It's possible that the visit might backfire entirely, drawing the country closer to Iran.

President of Iraq Barham Salih chats with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo  during their meeting in Baghdad, Iraq on May 07, 2019. 
CREDIT: Iraqi Presidential Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
President of Iraq Barham Salih chats with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during their meeting in Baghdad, Iraq on May 07, 2019. CREDIT: Iraqi Presidential Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

A day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s unannounced visit to Iraq, an Iraqi lawmaker said that the timing of Pompeo’s trip itself might be a signal of escalation with Iran.

Saying that Pompeo’s visit came at time when the region is in the midst of “a dangerous turning point caused by the U.S.,” Al-Fath coalition representative Karim Aliwi on Wednesday said that Iran is unlikely to “stand idly against such moves.” According to Iran’s Mehr News Agency, Aliwi motioned that Iran could launch countermeasures via land and sea.

The Iraqi parliament, he said, would discuss a response to U.S. pressures and Pompeo’s demands — which included holding Iraq responsible for protecting the lives of the roughly 5,000 American troops there — next week.

The Iraqi government is already walking a fine line with some lawmakers urging a vote on kicking out U.S. troops.

“Pompeo should have known better,” said Marina Ottaway, Middle East fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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“The United States has the illusion of delusion, that the relationship between the United States and Iraq can become somehow stronger than the relationship between Iran and Iraq,” said Ottaway.

“I’m not quite sure what Pompeo thought he could achieve — because the signal is very, very clear: Iraq is not going to antagonize Iran in order to please the United States,” she said.

Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Baghdad was made within the context of escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran, just three days after National Security Adviser John Bolton turned a routine deployment of a U.S. carrier to the Persian Gulf into a military escalation.

Iraq, though, wants no part of this tension, as Iraqi president Barham Salih diplomatically tweeted after Pompeo’s departure:

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi only acknowledged the visit on Twitter, without commenting on the nature of the meeting or on Pompeo’s demands. However, on the Arabic language page on his office site, Abdul-Mahdi released a statement on the meeting, saying that while the U.S. is “an important strategic partner” for Iraq, the country needs to continue a “balanced policy” of “building bridges,” cooperating with its allies and neighbors, which includes Iran.

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This is not to say that there is total support for Iranian influence in Iraq, but there isn’t much willingness within Iraq to enter into a conflict with their neighbor to the east.

The prime minister stressed that Iraq will form its policies by putting “the interests of Iraq first” and wanted “genuine dialogue” to be employed, rather than turning the region into “a place of conflict and strife.”

The fact is, Iraq is in a very tough spot. Having come out of a messy election last year, where no clear winner led to five months of negotiating over power-sharing before Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi was finally sworn in in October.

The country has been steeped in conflict since the 2003 U.S. invasion, with its people dying in that fight, then being targeted by armed groups — from Al Qaeda to ISIS. And while Iraq and Iran fought a bitter war for nearly a decade in the 1980s, it was Iranian-backed Shia militias (known collectively as the Hasht al-Shaabi) which helped the country fight ISIS.

Iranian influence, said Ottaway, is “hardwired into the militia.” That influence is the result of playing the long game: Iran started putting down roots in Iraq during the war, starting the first Shia militias then and supporting exiled Iraqi opposition figures.

The Trump administration has been pressing Iraq to kick out the militias, failing to note that they are largely Iraqi.

President Donald Trump also raised the ire of Iraqi lawmakers and officials by paying an unannounced Christmastime visit to U.S. troops there, and then in February announcing that he planned to keep a U.S. base there (on the country’s border with Syria, no less) to “watch” Iran, without discussing the matter with Iraqi officials.

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Then, as now, Salih was more outspoken than the Iraqi prime minister, rejecting Trump’s plan and responding with, “Don’t overburden Iraq with your own issues. The U.S. is a major power … but do not pursue your own policy priorities, we live here.”

Things are bad in Iraq. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, nearly 2 million people have been made homeless as a result of conflict, 5.4 million don’t have access to clean water, and 1.9 million don’t have enough to eat.