Surprise Pompeo trip to Iraq fails to calm regional tensions

US secretary of state arrives in Baghdad as naval task force sets sail for restive region

Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in conversation with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Baghdad. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in conversation with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Baghdad. Photograph: AFP/Getty

 

The unexpected visit to Baghdad on Tuesday by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo unsettled the Iraqi government and stoked rather than reduced anxieties that have built between Iraq and the Trump administration over the past year.

As a US naval task force set sail for the region and US long-distance bombers landed at Udeid airfield in Qatar, Pompeo demanded and received Iraqi security guarantees for the 5,200 US troops deployed in Iraq.

Claiming classified intelligence reports revealed attacks by Iranian forces “were imminent” and “very specific”, he cancelled a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and diverted to the Iraqi capital for talks with president Barham Saleh and prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

“They both provided assurances” about the security of US troops, said Pompeo, after he expressed concern over the threat posed by Iran-affiliated Shia militias which he urged the Iraqi government to place under “central control”.

Ahead of Pompeo’s arrival in Baghdad, Abdul Mahdi said that Iraq will not accept any attack on foreign troops, embassies, military missions and firms. His statement was meant to warn the US as well as pro-Iranian militias against mounting military strikes.

His statement followed a declaration by Tehran that US forces in the region will be regarded as “terrorist” following the Trump administration’s designation of Iran Revolutionary Guard corps as a “terrorist” organisation.

Baghdad is in no position to submit to Washington’s demand to take on powerful Shia militias. The government is dominated by Iran-affiliated Shia fundamentalists who were hosted by Tehran during the rule of Iraq’s ousted Baathist government and installed in power by the US occupation regime during 2003.

Weak, corrupt and unable to deliver drinkable water, electricity, security and jobs, the government has little popular support, including among formerly loyal Shias who have taken to the streets to demonstrate against its failings.

The continuing US military presence is strongly opposed by pro-Iran and anti-Iran nationalist factions that joined the Popular Mobilisation Forces which, alongside the Iraqi army and US and Iranian special forces, defeated Islamic State. Political parties associated with these factions are the most influential in parliament.

Iraq and Iran links

The US cannot loosen Iraq’s ties to Iran. Since Iraq and Iran are Shia majority countries, there is a religious dimension to the countries’ close connection. On the material level, Iraq is dependent on Iran for electricity, natural gas, and refined petroleum products.

While en route to Baghdad, Pompeo told journalists he would discuss “pending” business deals on energy that could disconnect Iraq from Iran. He could not, however, offer an immediate solution to Iraq’s reliance on Iran, which also extends to spare parts, food, medicine and other essential goods which provide revenue for US-sanctioned Iran.

In defiance of Washington, Baghdad and Tehran have pledged to increase their current $12 billion a year in trade to $20 billion. Pilgrimages to Shia holy sites in both countries are valued at $5 billion. Consequently, Iraq cannot abide by US sanctions on Iran or attempt to isolate it.

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