US, Iraq Meet for Talks After Pro-Iran Forces Threaten to Cut Off Iraqi PM’s Ear

US, Iraq Meet for Talks After Pro-Iran Forces Threaten to Cut Off Iraqi PM’s Ear
A member the U.S. forces walks past a drone in the Ain al-Asad airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, Iraq, on Jan. 13, 2020. (Ayman Henna/AFP via Getty Images)
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BAGHDAD—The 2,500 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq since the start of the Biden administration will continue their training and advisory role for Iraqi security forces (ISF), U.S. and Iraq delegates said Wednesday, after Iraq called for a third round of strategic U.S.-Iraq talks.

According to a joint statement issued by both countries, “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.”

The ongoing partnership “ensures support to the ISF’s continued efforts to ensure ISIS can never again threaten Iraq’s stability,” the statement read.

During the talks, both countries stressed the need for continued security cooperation in the region to counter ISIS.

“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,” the governments said.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hassan and his delegation, which included representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government, attended the discussions.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said on Monday that the United States shares the Iraqi goal of “having a security force that’s capable of defending Iraq’s own sovereignty and denying terrorist groups the use of Iraq as a base for operations.”

He added, “The coalition continues to support partner forces in Iraq and in Syria with advising air support, provision of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and conditions-based equipment divestment.”

Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hassan said in a statement during the talks that Iraq still needs U.S. support related to training, arming, and advising its military.

The talks—held virtually because of the pandemic—began in June under the Trump administration. Wednesday’s round, the first under President Joe Biden, centered on an array of issues, from Iraq’s energy security to the ongoing counterterrorism efforts.

Shiite political factions and militias loyal to Iran have been lobbying Iraqi politicians and making threats against leaders in the hopes of forcing U.S. troops to completely leave Iraq.

Last week, local militias in Iraq loyal to Tehran threatened Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, demanding that he kick American troops out of the country. A convoy of heavily armed Shiite militiamen drove openly through Baghdad, denouncing the U.S. presence as they threatened to cut off al-Kadhimi’s ear.

Two Iraqi officials said Wednesday that al-Kadhimi subsequently asked Iran’s leaders to rein in Iran-backed militias in Iraq and suggested he would confront the pro-Iran factions. In the note, al-Kadhimi threatened to “announce clearly who backs these groups,” the officials said.

The message led to a two-day visit this week by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force chief Ismail Qaani to Baghdad, where he met with militia and Shiite political leaders and called for calm, according to a senior Iraqi Shiite politician.

The two Iraqi officials and the Shiite politician all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Pro-Iran factions in Iraq have been more vocal and violent in their efforts to push out Western-backed forces in the country, culminating in a visit by Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last year which resulted in his death. At the time, Shiite lawmakers had passed a non-binding resolution seeking to end U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

Iraq has also seen dozens of rocket attacks aimed at Coalition base around Baghdad over the past few years, thought to be the work of pro-Iran militias, which have drawn counterattacks by Coalition and U.S. forces.

Iraqis are left feeling split between allying with the United States or Iran. Tehran, for instance, seeks billions of dollars in payment for crucial gas and electricity supplies to Iraq. Iraqi officials say the money is sitting idle in an account at the Trade Bank of Iraq because of U.S. restrictions and fears of sanctions.

The Biden administration last month permitted a 120-day sanctions waiver for Iraq to continue importing energy from Iran, the maximum time frame allowed. Waiver renewals under Trump were often for shorter periods and laden with conditions.

However, Iraqi officials say they require U.S. leniency to repay Tehran directly for the crucial energy imports, forgoing a complex payment system designed to evade U.S. sanctions over trading with Iran.

Iraq relies on Iranian supplies for a third of power needs, especially during peak summer months. Electricity cuts over payment issues resulted in violent protests in the southern province of Basra in the summer of 2018. As Iraq plans for nationwide parliamentary elections in October, the need to avoid unrest is high.

Currently, Iraq can pay Iran indirectly for the supplies in several ways. It can pay in humanitarian goods or medicines, cancel Iran’s foreign debt, and foot bills such as Iranian Embassy expenses, the costs of Iranian companies operating in Iraq and those of Iranian pilgrimages to Shiite holy sites in Iraq.

During the talks, the United States expressed ongoing support for Iraq’s energy independence, given its current reliance on Iran.

“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 joint statement read.

“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.”

Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool said after the talks that al-Kadhimi has ordered the formation of a committee that would hold technical talks with the American side to approve “mechanisms and timings” related to potential troop redeployments.

“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 joint statement read.

Kirby said the statement does not represent an agreement to begin a further withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The Trump administration supported a drawdown of U.S. troops from regions like Iraq while saying that some would remain to support Iraqi forces.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.