Iraqi PM Sudani meets US president amid Iran-Israel tensions, fears of regional war

Iraqi PM Sudani meets US president amid Iran-Israel tensions, fears of regional war
Biden reiterated his commitment to safeguarding US personnel and partners in the region, including Iraq. 
5 min read
16 April, 2024
US President Joe Biden (R) meets with the Prime Minister of Iraq Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on April 15, 2024. [AFP]

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' al-Sudani's inaugural visit to the United States is marked by crucial meetings with US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday. However, the Iraqi prime minister's diplomatic agenda is overshadowed by embarrassment as Iraqi militias engaged in attacks on Israel simultaneously with Iran's retaliatory strike.

Al-Sudani's arrival in Washington on Saturday coincided with escalating tensions in the region, fueled by Israel's war on Gaza and Iran's Saturday night drone and missile retaliation for an Israeli strike on Iran's diplomatic consulate in Syria early this month. 

"The main topics being addressed by the entire Iraqi delegation currently in Washington include activating the US-Iraqi relationship through the Strategic Framework Agreement previously signed by both countries, regional situations, investment, private sector and companies between the two nations, industry, agriculture, culture, education, climate and the environment," Iraqi government's spokesperson Bassem Al-Awadi told The New Arab

During a meeting with Iraq's visiting prime minister, Biden emphasised commitment to Israel's security and the pursuit of a ceasefire to bring back Israeli captives taken during a Hamas-led attack on Israeli military bases and civilian settlements within and around the Gaza envelope on 7 October.

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"Iran launched an unprecedented aerial attack against Israel, and we launched an unprecedented military effort to defend it. Together with our partners, we defended that attack," Biden said as he met Iraq's visiting prime minister.

According to AFP, Biden also said he wants to prevent the broader war in the Middle East as Israel wages a plausible genocide in Gaza. 

"The United States is committed to Israel's security. We're committed to a ceasefire that will bring the hostages home and prevent the conflict from spreading beyond what it already has," Biden added in the Oval Office.

The US president has pledged unwavering support for Israel while cautioning against hasty actions that could escalate tensions with Iran and potentially spark a broader conflict. 

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Additionally, Biden reiterated his commitment to safeguarding US personnel and regional partners, including Iraq. 

Sudani's visit is essential for Iraq, as he discusses critical political, economic and military issues with US officials. The Iraqi parliament, the ruling "Run the State Coalition", and Nechirvan Barzani, president of the northern Kurdistan region, expressed their full support for Sudani's visit on Monday.

However, Sudani is facing embarrassment in Washington as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), officially part of Iraq's security forces, also launched attacks on Israel simultaneously with Iran's retaliatory attack.  

 Biden said on Saturday that US forces helped take down "nearly all" the drones and missiles fired by Iran at Israel.

"Iran — and its proxies operating out of Yemen, Syria, and Iraq — launched an unprecedented air attack against military facilities in Israel. I condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms," Biden said.

According to the Iraqi News Agency (INA), Sudani affirmed during his meeting with Biden that Iraq is transitioning from military relations to a full partnership with the United States. He highlighted the significance of the visit amid a sensitive time in the history of the relationship between the two countries, attributing the cooperation between Iraq and the US in defeating ISIS to the sacrifices of Iraqis and support from allies.

Sudani also emphasised Iraq's phase of recovery and development in service projects. Additionally, he expressed commitment to discussing a sustainable partnership based on the Strategic Framework Agreement and adherence to international law while urging restraint to stop Israel's destructive war on Gaza and prevent further escalation of conflict in the region.

The PMF originated in June 2014 following a fatwa by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urging action against the Islamic State (IS). Although formally incorporated into Iraq's armed forces in 2016, some PMF factions maintain allegiance to Iran, highlighting ongoing complexities within Iraq's security landscape.

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Blinken remarked during a meeting of the US-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee in Washington, DC, on Monday that the recent discussions with Prime Minister Sudani were excellent. He noted that the meeting underscored the importance and value attributed to the relationship between the United States and Iraq.

Discussions focused on enhancing long-term relations, activating agreements, boosting American investments in Iraq, particularly in energy, and addressing regional issues like the Gaza conflict. According to a statement from the Iraqi PM's media office, the Strategic Framework Agreement was underscored as pivotal for future Iraq-US relations. 

 A significant aspect of the talks will revolve around the future of the American presence in Iraq, where approximately 2,500 US troops are stationed. Ongoing discussions between the US and Iraq will address whether these troops are still necessary to counter ISIS.

The recent escalation in security concerns has prompted renewed doubts about the sustainability of the two-decade US military presence in Iraq. US officials have confirmed that a Patriot battery in Erbil, Iraq, intercepted at least one Iranian ballistic missile.

Moreover, Iranian proxies operating within Iraq have initiated attacks against US interests across the region, intensifying the importance of Monday's meeting between Biden and the Iraqi prime minister.

Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin anticipate discussing the presence of US troops in meetings with al-Sudani. 

Formal talks between the US and Iraq commenced in January regarding the coalition formed to combat the Islamic State, with around 2,000 US troops remaining in the country under an agreement with Baghdad. Iraqi officials have periodically called for the withdrawal of these forces.

The relationship between the two countries is complex, partly due to Iran's significant influence in Iraq. A coalition of Iran-backed groups facilitated al-Sudani's rise to power in October 2022, further complicating the dynamics between the United States and Iraq.

Recent months have seen the US urging Iraq to enhance efforts to prevent attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria. Iran's weekend attacks on Israel through Iraqi airspace have heightened US concerns, although al-Sudani was en route to Washington when Iran launched its drones and missiles.

Additionally, the US has applied financial pressure on Baghdad over its relationship with Tehran, restricting Iraq's access to its own dollars in an attempt to counter alleged money laundering benefiting Iran and Syria.