Thursday, April 08, 2021

Iraq snapshot

 Thursday, April 8, 2021.  US troops are not leaving Iraq at any defined date despite multiple headlines, the Iraqi government continues to stonewall on the investigation into protesters deaths, and much more.

US trops are not leaving Iraq.  Not any time soon.  That's the takeaway from the meeting.  Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Samya Kullab (AP) characterize it this way:

The mission of U.S. forces in Iraq has shifted to training and advisory roles, allowing for redeployment of combat forces remaining in the country, U.S. and Iraq delegates said Wednesday, after a third round of strategic U.S.-Iraq talks.

Statements issued by both sides, however, said the timing of such a redeployment would be determined in upcoming technical talks, without specifying when they would take place. They also stressed the need for continued security cooperation. 

They also repeat the lie that the talks were "held virtually because of the pandemic."  No  They were held that way because Iraq is not a priority -- not even a minor one -- to the current administration.  Iraq is sending people all over -- the prime minister just completed a series of visits last week (including to the UAE) -- and Joe Biden and his officials are certainly able to travel -- and do -- when they think cameras will be present (Texas, for example).  They were held virtually because Iraq doesn't matter to the US government.  Let's also not forget that the US didn't want the meeting.  The Iraqi government requested the meeting.

Here's the official statement on the meeting:

The text of the following statement was released by the Governments of the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq.

Begin Text:

The delegation of the Republic of Iraq, led by Dr. Fuad Hussein, Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the delegation of the United States Government, led by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, co-chaired a meeting of the Higher Coordinating Committee via video teleconference today, in accordance with the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq.  The two sides reaffirmed their strong bilateral relationship, which benefits the American and Iraqi people.  The discussions covered security and counterterrorism, economics and energy and the environment, political issues, and cultural relations.  The Iraqi delegation also included representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The two delegations reaffirmed the principles agreed upon by the two countries in the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA).  The United States reaffirmed its respect for Iraq’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and relevant decisions of the Iraqi legislative and executive authorities.

Recognizing the difficulties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting global economic downturn, the United States and Iraq reaffirmed their strong economic partnership.  The United States commended Iraq for its recent steps toward accession to the New York Convention on Arbitration and the introduction of a visas-on-arrival system to promote international trade and foreign investment.  Both countries intend to work closely together as Iraq commits to implementing reforms to diversify its economy, improve the business climate, and help create a more vibrant private sector.  The U.S. delegation reaffirmed that American companies can assist in this diversification by investing in projects that will create jobs, improve public services, and help develop the country’s energy resources.

The two countries also discussed greater cooperation to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and the management of water resources.  The U.S. government contributed funds to renovate and equip Iraqi public health laboratories; donated test kits and personal protective equipment; and trained Iraqi epidemiologists to identify and respond to the current and future outbreaks.

The United States expressed its support for Iraq’s efforts to reform its power sector so that its citizens have cheaper and more reliable electricity, and fewer power shortages.  Both countries affirmed their support for Iraq diversifying its sources of energy by building greater ties to its neighbors in Jordan and in the Gulf Cooperation Council, including by moving forward with electric grid interconnection projects.

Iraq and the United States noted their mutual intent to address the climate emergency and to work together to promote clean energy and combat climate change, including with the U.S. private sector, by implementing projects that promote clean energy development, improve electricity generation through solar energy and energy efficiency, and capture Iraq’s flared gas.  Such projects should contribute to improving Iraq’s nationally determined contributions under the Paris Climate Accord, a development that is welcomed by the United States.  The United States and Iraq discussed cooperation with U.S. scientific agencies on management and protection of Iraq’s environment and natural resources, including water.  The United States welcomed progress between the Iraqi Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government in reaching agreements on budgetary, energy, and other strategic issues.

The United States reaffirmed respect for Iraq’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom of expression guaranteed by Iraq’s constitution.  The two delegations discussed how the United States could best support the Iraqi government to protect peaceful protesters and civil society activists and pursue judicial accountability.  Iraq welcomed the United States government’s support for parliamentary elections through funding for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.  The two countries have jointly moved to extend the maximum validity of visas for diplomatic travelers and government delegations to two years, reducing administrative delays on both sides.  This ensures greater mobility and direct communication between our governments.  The United States reaffirmed its continued intention to support Iraq in advancing durable solutions for internally displaced persons that are voluntary, safe, and dignified, and to help those communities that were targeted for genocide by ISIS.  Both countries discussed their intention to achieve further progress in the field of judicial cooperation, in the recovery of stolen assets, and in combating and prosecuting corruption.

In the security and counterterrorism discussion, the United States and Iraq reaffirmed their mutual intention to continue bilateral security coordination and cooperation.  Both countries reaffirmed that U.S. forces are in Iraq at the invitation of Iraqi Government to support the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in their fight against ISIS.  Based on the increasing capacity of the ISF, the parties confirmed that the mission of U.S. and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq, with the timing to be established in upcoming technical talks.  The transition of U.S. and other international forces away from combat operations to training, equipping, and assisting the ISF reflects the success of their strategic partnership and ensures support to the ISF’s continued efforts to ensure ISIS can never again threaten Iraq’s stability.

The Government of Iraq reaffirmed its commitment to protect the Global Coalition’s personnel, convoys, and diplomatic facilities.  The two countries also emphasized that the bases on which U.S. and Coalition personnel are present are Iraqi bases and their presence is solely in support of Iraq’s effort in the fight against ISIS.  The two countries intend to continue talks through the Joint Military Committee to ensure Global Coalition activities are aligned with and appropriately support the needs of the ISF, including the Peshmerga.

With regard to higher education, science, and culture, the two governments discussed U.S. support for Iraq’s efforts to strengthen higher education in cooperation with American universities through, inter alia, the Fulbright program, the U.S. Embassy’s Higher Education Partnership initiative, and expanded U.S. support to the Liberated Universities Initiative.  The United States and Iraq intend to identify additional ways to support Iraq’s plans to reform higher education and strengthen U.S.-Iraqi university partnerships.  The two delegations also reviewed progress on their mutual efforts to preserve Iraq’s rich cultural heritage and religious diversity and reaffirmed their intention to cooperating in the return of Iraqi cultural property illegally imported into the United States to its rightful place in Iraq.

Last August, the Government of Iraq took possession of the Ba’ath Party Archives from the temporary protective custody of the Hoover Institution. The Department of State helped to arrange this transfer, and the Department of Defense transported these 6.5 million documents back to Baghdad.  These working files of the Ba’ath Party are part of the history of the people of Iraq and their return to Iraq can be viewed as tangible fruit of the recent U.S. Iraq Strategic Dialogue. The two countries also discussed progress on a U.S. grant to the Smithsonian Institution to continue and expand the Nimrud Rescue Project, which supports Iraqi objectives in cultural preservation.  Finally, the two delegations discussed ways to share the cultural and historical accomplishments of the Iraqi people with the rest of the world through online exhibits.

The two countries reaffirmed the importance of the strategic relationship and their determination to continue to take steps to enhance it in the interest of both countries and to achieve security, stability, and prosperity in the region.  The United States welcomed the opportunity to reaffirm and strengthen its partnership with Iraq.   The two governments look forward to further discussions of the above issues at a Strategic Dialogue Higher Coordination Committee meeting to be held at a later date.

End text.

US troops are present because of ISIS is that translation.  Are they needed?  That seems to confuse the US government. 

This past Tuesday, the always amusing Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby played ALICE IN WONDERLAND's White Rabbit: "Now you know I'm late. I'm very late today."  He then took questions.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. But no -- other than the Fort Benning site visit, and that was the 31st of March, I don't have anything new.

Jeff Seldin, VOA?

Q: Thanks very much for doing this.

I'm wondering if you could give us an update on the -- the Pentagon's view of this situation with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The SDF just completed a -- a crackdown in al-Hol, and the -- the Iraqi Security Forces released information on more than -- almost 80 operations in just the first quarter of this year, killing 33 fighters and arresting more than 70. How -- how much of a dent are the operations by the SDF and -- and the Iraqi forces making against ISIS? And how much more is there to go on this?

Also curious if you have any assessment on -- on Mozambique, where I understand AFRICOM has a -- a training team there that's been working with Mozambican forces; that they went in before the terrorists hit Palma.

MR. KIRBY: There's a lot there.

As you know, late last week, Syrian Democratic Forces did conclude a -- a -- an operation to degrade and disrupt ISIS activities at -- at the al-Hol camp. In total, more than 125 people were detained by the SDF, and we certainly congratulate them on a successful operation, and we'll continue to support them in the mission to defeat ISIS. And as we've said before, the operation was intended to remove ISIS elements from al-Hol, where we know that they continually try to subsist and to recruit.

As we've said before, ISIS remains a threat, and -- and that's still the case today. It is a much-diminished threat to the region, certainly, to the world than it was back in 2014. The coalition worked mightily over the last several years to degrade and to diminish their ability to resource themselves, train themselves, recruit and to conduct operations, but they are still a threat.

And our mission in Iraq, at the invitation of the Iraqi government, is to continue to help Iraqi Security Forces enable their missions against ISIS. And we are continuing to -- in Syria to partner with Syrian Democratic Forces to the same end.

But this was an SDF operation, again counter-ISIS operations continue and our support to that mission continues.

I'm sorry, you had another one and I --

Q: Mozambique.

So Kirby, speaking for the Pentagon, seems to think it was going well, the fight against ISIS.  But what qualifies as success?  The US government continues to fight terrorism or 'terrorism' -- when not backing ISIS in Syria -- and this is in response to 9/11, right?  That remains the justification for all the money poorly spent and the attacks continue to have legal protection under the legislation passed in response to 9/11, right?

You don't defeat terrorism militarily.  In fact, military action actually tends to breed terrorism in new generations.  And if the difference between ISIS in 2014 and today -- which everyone always argues is immense -- what more success or 'success' is needed in Iraq for US troops to leave?

Bully Boy Bush, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and assorted others knew how to start the Iraq War, they just didn't know how to (or want to) end it.

That there was no defined mission is not a new observation by me.  Nor am I the first to make the observation.  Thomas E. Ricks spent years pointing that out.  "Tell me how this ends?" was a question he regularly posed to government officials.  And that was in the early years of the war.  Now the Iraq War has passed the 18 year mark.  Who in the press bothers to ask the question now?

Let's be honest, the press doesn't give a damn about Iraq.  You had Kirby holding a press conference the day before the US and Iraq held talks.  The day before.  AFP, REUTERS, STARS AND STRIPES and many other outlets were present.  The VOA was the only one to raise the issue of Iraq.  The only one.

Or take yesterday's press briefing at the US State Dept.  Spokesperson Ned Price noted Iraq at the start:

A couple things at the top. First, the Secretary met today with Iraqi Foreign Minister Dr. Fuad Hussain in the third meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, reinforcing the strong relationship between our two countries.

Secretary Blinken noted this was his first strategic dialogue since he’s joined as Secretary of State, and he noted that this signified how vital the relationship with Iraq is to the United States. It’s also why Prime Minister Kadhimi was one of the first foreign leaders that both President Biden and Secretary Blinken spoke with after taking office.

In support of this engagement, officials from our governments reviewed Iraq’s political, economic, and security situations and they welcomed parliamentary elections as important milestones for Iraq’s democracy. Our goal for this virtual session was to consolidate the progress we made in the previous two sessions and to translate our shared vision into a more detailed roadmap for strengthening our partnership going forward.

I would refer you, of course, to the joint communique for further details on today’s important dialogue. The United States strongly supports Iraq, and we recognize the importance of a successful and secure Iraq to the entire region.

Despite that, Iraq was barely touched on in the long press briefing.  It was almost touched on early but despite a journalist proclaiming he wanted to ask about Iraq, it wasn't asked.

Much later, this took place:

QUESTION: And if I can, on Iraq, the joint statement says technical talks will discuss redeployment of U.S. combat troops. Any idea how and when these talks would happen?

MR PRICE: [. . .] When it comes to the strategic dialogue and the question of U.S. troops in Iraq, the bottom line is that U.S. forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Government. ISIS, of course, continues to pose a threat to Iraq as well as to our collective security. We are in close contact with coalition allies and partners regarding the continued importance of our shared mission to take on ISIS not only in Iraq and Syria, but whatever – wherever ISIS – wherever else ISIS may manifest. I’d also point you to statements recently released by the Global Coalition regarding our commitment to these efforts.

And then at the very end of the press conference:

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up on Iraq. In the final communique, you mentioned the redeployment of troops out of Iraq as part of an agreement. What does it – does that mean the redeployment is going to be in the region? Because the headlines is already coming that the U.S. withdrawing troops from Iraq. And what’s the difference between withdrawing and redeploying?

MR PRICE: These are questions for the Department of Defense.

QUESTION: It – but it came from you. The communique came from the State Department.

MR PRICE: But the Department of Defense did take part in the strategic dialogue today, so these are questions that are best directed there. We talked about the global force posture review that Secretary Austin is now undertaking. I think the point that I would make from here, the point that I would reiterate from here, is that U.S. forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Government for the sole purpose of supporting Iraqi forces in the campaign against ISIS, and of course, that campaign remains important and it remains ongoing.  Thank you all very much.

He wouldn't answer the question.  He got a little bit of pushback and he immediately ended the press briefing.

Not the State Dept's issue or scope?  That's strange.  Iraq's Foreign Affairs Minister Fuad Hussein participated in the talks -- that would be the US equivalent of the Secretary of State:

Watch: Iraq’s Minister of Foreign Affairs delivers remarks at the meeting of the Higher Coordinating Committee in accordance with the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation between the Iraq and the USA:

In Iraq protests continue. Monday, on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Alice Fordham reported on the protests:

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It doesn't take long to pick up a revolutionary vibe in Nasiriyah. There are large posters of people killed in protests. Even on the relatively quiet days I visited recently, I saw one demonstration in a central square and another that briefly closed a major bridge. People are calling for a fairer economy and less dominance by powerful families and for the release of detained demonstrators.


FORDHAM: Nasiriyah lies in Iraq's poor southern heartland. There's oil here, but the industry employs few locals. And a protest movement that swept Iraq 18 months ago is still very much alive here. Earlier in the year, things seemed somewhat optimistic. Back then, I spoke with protest leader Alaa al Rikabi, who was among those starting new political parties.

ALAA AL RIKABI: Peaceful change in the political situation that eventually ends with the election boxes.

FORDHAM: He spoke to me by phone before my visit.

AL RIKABI: We are going to be participating in an opposition party in the parliament, seeking to have the political majority in the parliament someday maybe, maybe several years.

FORDHAM: That was the plan. But by the time I got to Nasiriyah, Rikabi said he needed family time and couldn't meet with me. Activists are facing dangers here.

ADNAN AZIZ DAFFAR: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: I meet Adnan Aziz Daffar in a little store he runs in a market. He said activists like him here suffer oppression and threats, arrests, sound bombs outside their houses, even assassinations.

DAFFAR: (Non-English language spoken).

FORDHAM: Their opponents are against thought, he says, against anyone who threatens their interests. He blames security forces, but also powerful Iran-backed militia groups. Nasiriyah is a flashpoint, but analysts say it reflects a troubling trend.

BELKIS WILLE: So unfortunately, what we've seen in Iraq has been a real increase in the risk that activists, journalists, protesters are taking any time that they try to criticize the government, political parties, armed groups.

FORDHAM: Belkis Wille is with Human Rights Watch. She notes recently, Prime Minister Mustafah Al-Kadhimi did lead the arrest of men accused of killing journalists and activists in the city of Basra, but adds that Iran-backed militias in particular are so powerful now that it's hard for even the prime minister to keep them in check.

WILLE: I think so much more action is going to be needed from the government if protesters are going to be able to feel safe again and most importantly, perhaps, if young people who really want to change the political landscape in Iraq will feel safe in mounting a political platform.

Tuesday, the Iraqi government Tweeted:

: Tomorrow we will announce the results of the investigative committee on the casualties during the recent protests in Nasiriyah.

That was Tuesday.  It's not Thursday.  Still no results announced.  

Yesterday, Sura Ali (RUDAW) reported:

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al- Kadhimi has assigned a new governor for Dhi Qar province, state media reported on Wednesday evening, after protests demanding the dismissal of the local government.

Abdul-Ghani al-Asadi has been removed as governor after less than two months in office, replacing Nathem al-Waeli who resigned in February after bloody protests calling for his dismissal. 

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Tuesday appealed to the people of Dhi Qar to stand by the local government "regardless of the name of the governor." A "fuel crisis" was announced in the city on the same day, as protesters blocked access to the Nasiriyah oil refinery and local government buildings.

Ahmed al-Khafaji, a cardiologist and former provincial health official, has been appointed as the new governor, according to state media. 

Kadhimi has directed Khafaji to “work and make every effort to serve the people of the province,” the PM’s office said on Wednesday – but protesters are not happy with the news. 

"Khafaji came from outside the protest sites, and this is completely unacceptable," Activist Walaa Kadhim told Rudaw English on Wednesday, confirming demonstrations and sit-ins will continue in Nasiriyah until their demands are met. 

The following sites updated: