Iraq and Trump: The first two months

Iraq and Trump: The first two months
Comment: Just two months after Trump's inauguration, significant damage has already been done to American-Iraqi relations, despite amendments to the travel ban, writes Ibrahim Al-Marashi.
5 min read
22 Mar, 2017
Abadi could give Trump lessons on being a less divisive figure [AFP]

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is visiting US President Donald Trump on the two-month anniversary of Trump's inauguration, at time when the US president's policies have already deepened a sustained strain on the fraught relations between the US and Iraq.

Despite Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail, some in the Middle East, including in Iraq, celebrated his electoral success, seeing him as a strong, decisive leader who would "finish off" the Islamic State group thirty days into his presidency, as he promised.

Not only has the battle for Mosul dragged on longer than 30 days, Trump has insulted the dignity of Iraq's people twice within his first two months in office. On January 21, he again claimed that the US should simply take Iraq's oil, and on January 27, he signed the now infamous travel ban.

Donald Trump's executive order eventually removed Iraq from the list on March 6. That was followed up by the Trump-al-Abadi meeting yesterday. While the two leaders may yet establish a cordial relationship, with Trump praising "unprecedented cooperation" in fighting IS, it is Iraq's public that will be less forgiving.

A recent survey conducted in Iraq has indicated that Trump has already alienated Iraqis - the partners on the ground actually fighting IS.

Taking Iraq's oil

On two occasions in January, Trump claimed that the US should seize Iraq's oil, drawing the ire of those within Iraq already antagonistic to America, including the Shia militias aligned with Iran.  

The notion of an insult to dignity, both personal and national, serves as a repeated theme in Iraqi reactions to the travel ban

When Iraq's oil was opened up to foreign investors after the 2003 invasion, Iraqis were wary of giving up sovereignty as it did during the decades of the "Seven Sisters" - the international oil cartel that dominated the global business for decades.

Iraqis are determined never return to that past, when it lacked agency in managing its natural resources, while watching its oil wealth benefit foreign corporations, as well as resulting in meddling from British and American governments.

Trump's statements harken back to the days of the Seven Sisters, which was condemned in Iraq, but, like every matter in the Trump administration, an even greater crisis has distracted from the previous one.

Damaging morale in Iraq

While the Iraqi forces fighting for Mosul are divided between the Iraqi military, Kurdish peshmerga fighters, a myriad of Shia militias, and Arab Sunni tribal forces, one thing has united them all. They all objected to Trump's travel ban.

Generals in Iraq's military, including Mizhir Khalid al-Mashhadani, Ali al-Lami and Talib al-Kenani, all agreed that the travel ban hurt the morale of their soldiers and would hinder cooperation with US forces engaged in the battle for Mosul.

General Kenani, who commands the American-trained Counter Terrorism Forces - probably the most effective Iraqi force now fighting IS - would have been banned from entering the US, even though his family lives there and he frequently travelled to Central Command in Tampa, Florida, for high-level meetings.

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A captain in the same unit said the ban was "an insult to their dignity".

The notion of an insult to dignity, both personal and national, serves as a repeated theme in Iraqi reactions to the travel ban.

A spokesman for the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Shia militias, said the ban was an affront "to the dignity of Iraqis who have suffered thousands of martyrs fighting terrorism on the behalf of the world".

Leaders of two of these militias, the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade and the Hizbollah Brigade, subsequently threatened to target US troops in Iraq, who number about 5,000

Read more: 'Ban Americans' call as Trump threatens delicate US-Iraq ties

The Iraqi government's reaction

The notion of dignity came up again during debates in Iraq's parliament, where lawmakers sought to issue a reciprocal ban on Americans entering Iraq.

Hamdia al-Husseini, a member of the Muwatin (National) bloc in parliament, called for a boycott of American goods in Iraq in order "to restore the dignity of Iraqis who have sacrificed their souls and blood for the sake of their country". Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric and leader of a large bloc in parliament, argued that Americans should in turn be barred from Iraq.

While the US has lectured Iraq's leader on being less divisive... it is perhaps Iraq's prime minister who could offer a lesson to the American president

The Executive Order not only dismayed career officers fighting alongside the US military against IS, but Iraqi officials sympathetic to the US, notably Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. He ultimately rejected the parliament's motion.

While the US has lectured Iraq's leader on being less divisive in a bid to unite the country's Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds, it is perhaps Iraq's prime minister - in Washington at the moment - who could offer a lesson to the American president on being a less divisive figure.

The future?

In 2015, during the early stages of the fight against IS, the Iraqi state mulled appealing for greater Russian involvement. Under the Obama administration, Washington pressure sought to prevent Iraq from doing this. Now, with a more antagonistic Trump administration, and a Russia that seems to have delivered "results" for its Assad client in Aleppo, new dynamics might compel Iraqi political elites to look at Russia as a potential partner in the fight against IS. 

Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration may well be ambivalent about Russia projecting its influence in Iraq, having already practically ceded Syria to Moscow's orbit.

Despite the acrimonious debate that ensued as a result of Trump executive order, there might be one positive development that emerged. Trump managed to give all Iraqis something to agree on - a common objection to his first two months in office.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos. He is co-author of
Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History and The Modern History of Iraq.

Follow him on Twitter: @ialmarashi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.