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Why helping Iraq makes strategic sense after the end of the U.S. combat mission | Trudy Rubin

I sat down with the Iraqi prime minister to hear why Iraq is worth supporting to anchor a chaotic Middle East.

President Joe Biden (right) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in the Oval Office of the White House.
President Joe Biden (right) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in the Oval Office of the White House.Read moreSusan Walsh / AP

President Joe Biden declared on Monday that the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would cease by the end of this year. But he also made clear that U.S. forces — probably most of the 2,500 now in the country — would be rebranded to “train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS.”

Unlike his abrupt end to the “forever war” in Afghanistan, Biden wants to deepen a strategic partnership with Iraq.

Moreover, the White House wants to help Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, an unusual Iraqi leader. He is trying to pull together a country fragmented by sectarianism, corruption, and by Iranian meddling, including aid to Shiite militias that challenge the government.

Working with Iraq makes strategic sense, given Baghdad’s geography at the center of the Middle East, where it borders Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Jordan. Al-Kadhimi’s government has enhanced frayed Iraqi relationships with its Arab and Turkish neighbors and tried to ease the Shiite-Sunni tensions in the region.

A stabilized Iraq could provide an anchor in an increasingly chaotic Mideast. Yet that goal often seems as distant as a desert mirage.

» READ MORE: How Iraq could become a Mideast anchor, not a forever war | Trudy Rubin

So I interviewed the Iraqi leader at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., (after his lengthy one-on-one session with Biden at the White House on Monday) about what he hopes to achieve and why he welcomes further U.S. help.

To understand al-Kadhimi’s goals — and why he deserves U.S. backing — it helps to know his background. A former human rights campaigner, his surprise ascendance to prime minister in May 2020 came after months of demonstrations by frustrated Iraqi youths demanding an end to massive government corruption, and militia violence. Hundreds of demonstrators were assassinated by snipers, presumably from Iranian-backed militias.

Al-Kadhimi came to office promising justice for the dead youths. He pledged to reform a government in which political parties based on ethnicity (Kurdish and Arab) and religious sect (Shiite and Sunni) divide the spoils. He also agreed to hold early elections in October that may push forward new local leaders.

Iranian-backed militias have responded with more targeted killings, including journalists and intellectuals. And they may threaten the security of the elections.

Yet the Iraqi leader insists he has made progress in curbing those militias. And he believes he can still move the country forward if the United States stays engaged.

“Definitely the circumstances of Afghanistan are different from Iraq,” the prime minister told me. “Iraqi troops have reached the stage, via U.S. training and capacity building, where they can play a full role.”

His focus, and the White House’s, he said, was on “a long-term strategic partnership,” including “training, intelligence assistance, and cooperation on science, the economy, education, and issues related to the environment. These are signs of countries building a relationship.”

However, Iran, which shares a lengthy border with Iraq and the Shiite Muslim faith with a majority of Iraqis, continues to meddle in Iraqi affairs, all the more so when relations between Washington and Tehran grow more tense.

Biden’s declared end to the “U.S. combat mission” may provide Iraqi politicians of all political stripes with cover for supporting a U.S.-Iraqi partnership. But won’t Tehran - and the militias — try to undermine it, targeting more U.S. personnel?

“This is an Iraqi affair,” al-Kadhimi insisted firmly. “We will be clear to friends and neighbors that we pursue Iraqi interests.

“I am an independent prime minister. Non-state actors don’t represent Iraqi policy,” he said, referring to the militias.

The Iraqi leader insists he has made progress against militia murders. He stressed that “the killers of Hisham al-Hashimi have been arrested,” referring to the notorious murder a year ago in Baghdad of a noted Iraqi expert on armed groups. He added that “death squads responsible for the killing of numerous protesters are in custody, including more than 150 individuals.”

» READ MORE: Biden needs to prevent a Taliban takeover | Trudy Rubin

However, he rejects critics who demand that he take on the pro-Iran militias directly with military action. “I don’t want to get the Iraqis and myself into further bloodshed,” he insists. “I don’t want the Yemeni [civil war] model. I need patience to build the nation.”

I asked whether the U.S. wants him to strike back at the militias militarily. “I am not taking Iraq into a war,” he replied. “I won’t accept - and I am not being asked.”

Rather, for al-Kadhimi the route to stability lies in strengthening Iraq’s economy and state institutions, with help and investment from the U.S. and the West. He knows that Iraqi youth, deprived of electricity, health care, jobs, and hope for the future, are impatient. Protesters are calling for boycotting the election.

Al-Kadhimi, however, perseveres, calling on young Iraqis “to avoid the (election) boycott. The solution will come through participation and change. Lack of turnout will bring the same old names.

“I understand young peoples’ frustration,” he says. “Reform takes time.”

Would he accept a second term, if chosen again after the elections? “I accepted this role to serve my country,” he replies. “If there is an Iraqi consensus, we will see.” Despite the slow progress, it’s hard to see any of Iraq’s political elite who would try harder to bridge the sectarian divides that threaten Iraq and the region.

So it’s in America’s interest to help al-Kadhimi gain more of the time he so desperately needs.