US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Iraq amid escalating tensions between the United States and Iran. Bombay canceled a visit to Berlin to meet with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad during a four-hour visit. This comes after the announcement of US officials to send US aircraft carrier to the region in response to the threats posed by Iran to US forces and Washington’s allies.
Details of Pompeo’s short visit to the Iraqi capital were not announced. But he met with Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and President Barham Saleh. During a press statement after the meeting, the US Secretary of State linked his visit to the recent escalation with Iran. He said that he spoke with “the leadership there in Iraq to reassure them that we stand ready to ensure that Iraq is an independent sovereign state “He said he wanted to help them to be less dependent on energy deals with Iran.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after his visit that his country wants to see Iraq independent and not subject to any party, adding that his visit to Baghdad came in light of the Iranian escalation in the region. Pompeo told reporters accompanying him that he had traveled to Iraq because of the Iranian escalation in the region despite his refusal to discuss the intelligence information in detail, and stressed that his country wants Iraq to be independent and not subject to any party.
“We talked about the importance of Iraq ensuring its ability to provide appropriate protection for Americans in their country,” he said, adding that Iraqi officials “showed me that they understood that this was their responsibility.” “We wanted to brief them on the growing threat we saw and give them a little more background about it,” Pompeo said. “Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, from his part told in a press conference in Baghdad that Iraq would be committed to protecting foreign missions operating in Iraq and that no attack would be allowed on any foreign military headquarters or embassy or company operating in Iraq and will not be part of any sanctions against any state.
The visit comes two days after the United States warned Iran that it would respond with “strong force” to any attack and consider sending the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln meant sending a “clear and unambiguous message” to Tehran. The tension comes a year after US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from nuclear agreement with Iran, where he launched a hostile campaign against the Iranian regime instead . Observers in USA and abroad say that Trump has sought to widen his pressure in the hope of provoking a crisis with Iran, which UN inspectors say that it is committed to a nuclear deal.
The visit of the US Secretary of State coincided with a US “intensive” campaign to pressure Iran for a full year after the announcement of the US President, the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the re-imposition of economic sanctions “unilateral” on Iran and the threat of sanctions other countries that do not comply with those sanctions. After his talk with Donald Trump on Tuesday, Mike Pompeo pointed out in Finland that his country wants to make sure that Iraq is in a position to strengthen relations with the United States and its allies in the Middle East, which recognize that Iran is the main threat in the region.
Observers of the Iraqi issue see that the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Baghdad was carrying specific US messages to the Iraqi leadership related to Iranian threats directly or indirectly by its allied forces against US interests in the region. Among what was circulated by local and foreign media , Talks of Mike Pompeo with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and other officials, focused on the search for the security of US soldiers and US interests and the security of companies and employees working in Iraq and ensure their protection from the Iranian presumed “threats” .
Since US President Donald Trump’s visit to Ayn –al Assad Airbase , western Iraq at the end of last year and his statements to keep his troops in Iraq for purposes of monitoring Iranian activities in Iraq, armed factions of the popular crowd have stepped up their threats to target US troops in Iraq. USA took the threats of factions of popular crowd seriously and is trying to work with the Iraqi government to ensure the security of US troops and interests in Iraq.
US fears come from Iran’s “potential” threats after the United States stepped up its economic sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and the classification of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Iran, according to intelligence data, plans to target US interests in several countries of the region through various attacks by allied forces include raids by drones and bombings targeting locations of US troops and American installations and companies.
It is likely that the United States relied firstly on intelligence provided by Israel two weeks ago in meetings held by Israeli officials with their counterparts in the US administration, including “unspecified” information regarding “possible” plans for Iran in the region to target US interests in Saudi Arabia, Emirate , Iraq and Syria and in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf, as well as information provides that Iran prepared short-range ballistic missiles aboard Iranian Revolutionary Guards Navy boats near the Strait of Hormuz. The Pentagon warned of the threat of Iranian small boats suspected they carry short-range missiles.
It is not unlikely that the “supposed” attacks include interests of the United States and its allies in the region, carried out by Shiite groups allied to Iran in Iraq in which the United States has deployed about 5,200 troops on a number of bases. The United States is sending through spreading more troops in the region a message about its ability of deterrence, which makes Iranians think more than once before attacking American interests.
After his visit to Iraq, Mike Pompeo spoke of the importance of “ensuring Iraq’s ability to protect the Americans effectively,” noting that Baghdad promised to “protect US interests,” while the Iraqi government, which announced the visit after the departure of the US Secretary , did not speak about the details of the talks . The United States has more than 5,200 troops in bases in Iraq and some 2,000 troops in Syria at bases close to the Iraqi border. US commanders fear they are being threatened by the Iranian-backed Popular crowd Forces.
Armed Shiite groups loyal to Iran have extensive influence in Iraq’s security, military and economic institutions and in the parliament as well. Iraq has close ties with the United States, which leads the international coalition in the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but Iraq is also linked to close political and economic and security relations with Iran, which does not seem that Iraq in the near term is able to dispense with the supply of Iranian electric power or gas to run the Iraqi stations as the approach of the summer. If the US Secretary has spoken with confidence that the Iraqi government has promised to “Protection of American interests”, the reality indicates that the strength and influence of the armed groups allied to Iran in Iraq usually favor Iranian interests on other interests, whether interests of Iraq or America, making such promises far from reality if Iran chooses to strike American soldiers or American interests through those groups that owe allegiance to Iran.
Today, after successive unilateral US decisions against Iran, beginning with the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, then attempts to make Iran’s oil exports zero , declaring the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, and finally sanctions against Iran’s mineral exports, with military movements in the Arabian Gulf, bring back into memory the mobilization that began before the 1991 and 2003 wars, it seems clear that the United States, and perhaps Trump in person, has decided to use the pressure papers in the confrontation to the fullest extent, as reflected in statements made by Washington these days, although everyone knows that there is no decision to war!
This development will impose on the other conflicting parties: Iraq and Iran, new positions differ from the positions adopted during the past sixteen years; the Iraqi political decision maker who adapted to the American duality towards Iranian intervention in Iraq, today is required to determine its clear position from this confrontation, If Iraq wants to maintain the necessary US support for him in security, politically and economically! In return, Iran will use all its tools in Iraq to prevent any attempt to remove Iraq from the Iranian abaya (cloak) and re-position in the context of the current confrontation. Especially as the results of the confrontation with Da’ash, and the results of the recent elections, imposed a new reality that makes Iran to assume its influence in Iraq has become a reality that can not be overcome
Until now, the Iraqi government has been able to deal with the US sanctions file on Iran by convincing the United States that the Iraqi and Iranian economic interests are very tangled. Especially in the gas file, as Iraq is the second largest importer of Iranian gas, and relies on gas production plants in Iraq, which produces about 47% of electricity, a large dependence on Iranian gas, which means that any commitment to US sanctions will deprive Iraq of almost half of its electricity output! It is also not easy to write off the large trade exchange, which amounts to nearly $ 7 billion a year, as well as the undeclared figures on arms and ammunition trade between the two countries! By an immediate political decision, and it had already been able to obtain temporary exemptions for that purpose. But the United States is monitoring high-level mutual visits between Tehran and Baghdad, and is also monitoring speeches from the two capitals about “developing” their relationship.
In the recent visit of President Barham Salih to Tehran, he spoke of the need for “a new system in the region that meets the interests of all countries” and that Iran has an “important role” to play in this system! While President Rouhani talked about boosting trade between the two countries to reach 20 billion dollars .The Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi said, that Iraq will not abide by the sanctions on Iran as they are non-UN sanctions! He also spoke during his visit to Tehran to stand together “against any threat against either country!” and the development of the relationship between Iraq and Iran to be «an example of advanced relations between the countries of the region and Iraq»! On the other hand, Rouhani talked about the increase of gas and electricity exports to Iraq as well as linking the railways between the two countries and the establishment of three joint industrial cities! .
It seems naïve to think that Iraq can deal with US sanctions against Iran, and it seems naïve to think that the United States may resort to sanctions against Iraq because of that! But the United States will certainly not allow Iraq to turn into a Trojan horse against its tough sanctions against Iran or allow Iran to use its tools in Iraq to threaten US forces or American interests in Iraq. In his recent visit, the US Secretary of State reported this position clearly to Baghdad. But Iraq will sooner or later have to take the necessary steps that may be interpreted by any of the conflicting parties, as it reflects a position against it, with all the consequences of political implications! Making Iran’s oil exports zero, for example, may force Iraq to increase its oil exports to compensate for the shortage of Iranian oil from world markets, which may be interpreted by Iran as a counter position! In contrast, the failure of Iraq to increase its exports, with the inability of the Gulf countries to compensate for this shortfall, may lead to higher oil prices globally, and this position can be explained by the US as a counter position!
After the visit of Pompeo to Baghdad, the Iraqi army took over fully the task of controlling the areas of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq, after the withdrawal of the popular crowd factions in a move that raised questions about the background because of the importance of the area located within the province of Nineveh and is a basic transport node between the territory of Iraq and Syria, and located in the middle of the road between Mosul, which is about seventy kilometers west, and between Syria, which is separated by about sixty kilometers only.
Tal Afar is an essential part of the road that Iran has worked through the years of the war on the organization ISIS for its opening across the Iraqi territory towards Syria and then towards Lebanon and the shores of the Mediterranean, which explains the insistence of pro-Iranian factions to participate in the battle against the organization that took place in Tal Afar in August 2017. Leaders of these factions fought a fierce political battle against the government of former Prime Minister Haider Abadi in order to obtain a role for their factions in the last major military confrontation against Dahesh after the restoration of Mosul from his control about a month ago.
While Iraqi sources underestimated the importance of the step of the withdrawal of the crowd from Tal Afar, saying it was linked to “a previous agreement between the crowd and the army to carry out a routine redeployment for purely technical and security reasons,” political analysts linked the withdrawal to the intense pressure currently placed on Baghdad by the United States to reduce its link In Tehran, a pressure that included warnings of the consequences of the participation of Iraqi Shiite factions in any action against interests and US forces in Iraq.
According to these, the withdrawal of the crowd from Tal Afar at this time contributes to easing the pressure on the Iraqi government and includes a message of calm from the leaders of the crowd to Washington that they are unwilling to escalate with it , especially after its initiative to classify the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization and warning of the Iraqi militias associated with it.
Observers considered that the event, which coincided with the US demand to control the movements of militias at this critical stage to serve the Iraqi government. The government will appear to be able to impose its will in line with the US position, which is showing a caution of the possibility that these militias might commit an error that could drag Iraq into a position of bias toward Iran.
According to one political analyst, “it is clear that the Iraqi government needs some kind of support in the face of the pressure of parties loyal to Iran, which calls for the government to take a pro-Iran position .These parties failed earlier in the House of Representatives resolution calling for the removal of foreign troops, and specifically American, from Iraqi territory. Which is considered by the government as a victory at this stage, which can not provoke Washington and face it in any way.
The United States has been swinging between the temptation and threat in an attempt to push Iraq to distance itself from Iran and limit its influence in the country, at a time when Washington’s insistence is clear on achieving its goal either by tough measures or soft ones , making the Baghdad options narrower, and the possibility of reconciliation between maintaining the strength of the relationship with Iran and keeping the alliance with the United States is dwindling . Sources close to the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told the “Arabs” that the United States offered “a package of economic inducements on Iraq, to gradually dismantle its partnership with Iran.”
Although Washington “does not want an urgent disconnection between Baghdad and Tehran,” it is betting on Iraq’s need for a package of US-led gas and electricity assistance. This explains the US exemption given to Iraq from abiding by the sanctions imposed on Iran . The sources said that an Iraqi delegation comprising representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministries of Oil and Electricity were conducting negotiations of the” final details” with the representatives of ExxonMobil company to sign giant contracts in the field of associated gas investment for oil extraction.
It is estimated that the value of the contracts between Baghdad and the US company exceeds $ 50 billion, including short-, medium- and long-term investments, with a total return of more than $ 400 billion. This package of temptations followed Washington’s explicit warnings to Baghdad that the influence of the popular crowd Pro-Iran is growing in the country, while some of his factions are preparing to attack US interests in the region. Qusay Mahbouba, a former political adviser to the leader of the al-Hakamah movement, Ammar al-Hakim, believes that the United States has sent several letters to Iraq over the past few days, the first is that “Iraq and Lebanon can not be open spheres of influence for Iran.”
He added “The second American message indicates that” any Iranian response on Iraqi territory will mean your loss of fragile sovereignty, and Washington will respond directly to Iran. “The Americans said to the Iraqis in the third letter,” We will give you a limited exemption for a limited period. It seems very clear that friends of Iran in Iraq are unable to keep pace with American momentum, which comes once in stick formula, and another in the carrot However, some of these tried to reassure Tehran. “Iraq will not respond to American pressure, nor to the temptations of investment and economic support provided to Baghdad, if the price is to give up Iran,” said Karim Alawi, a deputy of the Fatah alliance led by Hadi al-Amiri, close to Tehran.
In sum, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Baghdad reflected the hardness of Washington’s strategy of implementing sanctions against Iran, and the clear seriousness of the administration of President Donald Trump in drawing red lines to Tehran and warning of harsh responses if Iran and its armed arms have made any field adventure against US forces or interests in the Middle East. The undeclared visit of Pompeo placed the Iraqi government “in front of its responsibilities” in the light of growing Iranian statements that include direct threats.
Observers believe that Washington has no secrets to deposit in Baghdad. It does not trust the Iraqi government in relation to Iran, so Pompeo himself came to confirm that the Americans are serious in responding to any aggression against American targets on Iraqi soil placing responsibility on the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi. , Observers underestimated that the United States relies on the protection of its embassy in Baghdad to the Iraqi authorities, pointing out that in addition to the security companies that do so directly, the United States has eyes in the armed groups loyal to Iran, to keep the US informed of anything which makes them aware of the movements of those groups in order to thwart them at an early date.
Observers believe that what is important for the United States to deny Iran playing its cards in Iraq, that is the content of the American warning, which Pompeo carried to the Iraqi government on his short visit, a warning that puts the Iraqi government in confrontation with the militias, which Tehran believes that it can use them to divert the United States from its main goal, targeting Iran. They see that the talk about the disruption of channels of communication between the United States and Iran is naïve , because the two parties have intermediaries who trust them more than the Iraqi side , which has become like a hostage in the hands of pro-Iran militia leaders , which disturbs the US administration, but the US is dealing with it cautiously waiting for the situation to be clarified .
Iraqi Studies Unit
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies