Iraqi leader says country still needs US help to counter ISIS threat
BAGHDAD – The Iraqi prime minister said on Monday ahead of a much-anticipated trip to Washington that his country still needed American help to counter the threat posed by the Islamic State group and that his administration was committed to introducing reforms in the Islamic State. security sector as rogue militia groups organize almost daily attacks against the seat of its government.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press that Iraq does not currently need direct military support on the ground, and that aid levels will depend on the changing nature of the threat.
Al-Kadhimi is expected to meet with President Donald Trump in Washington this week to conclude a strategic dialogue launched in June to reconfigure US-Iraqi relations.
Al-Kadhimi, who is backed by the United States, took office in May as Baghdad’s relations with Washington were precarious. The January murder of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and top Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a US drone strike in Baghdad prompted Shiite lawmakers to ask US forces to leave Iraq .
Three years after Iraq declared victory over ISIS, sleeper cells continue to stage attacks in the north of the country. Meanwhile, the US-led coalition has made a planned withdrawal this year as Iraqi security forces take the lead in fighting and air raids.
“Ultimately, we will always need cooperation and assistance at levels which today may not require direct and military support, nor support on the ground,” al-Kadhimi said. He said the cooperation “will reflect the changing nature of the terrorist threat,” including ongoing training and arms support.
Al-Kadhimi has often had to walk a tightrope in the midst of the US-Iran rivalry. He was asked if he was bringing messages from Tehran following a recent visit there, he said: “We are not playing the role of postman in Iraq.
Sworn in as prime minister following historic mass anti-government protests, al-Kadhimi’s administration has inherited a myriad of crises. State coffers in the crude-dependent country have been squeezed following a sharp drop in oil prices, adding to the woes of an economy already grappling with aftershocks from the global coronavirus pandemic.
State violence used to quell the mass protests that erupted in October has lowered public confidence in the government to a new low. Tens of thousands of Iraqis marched to denounce widespread government corruption, poor services and unemployment, leading to the resignation of the previous prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
Al-Kadhimi’s administration set out an ambitious agenda that included adopting economic reforms, fighting corruption, revenge protesters, and bringing arms to the state. The latter pitted his government against rogue militias backed by Iran.
Three months later, his administration suffered setbacks. Protests by retirees thwarted plans to cut state wages as oil revenues fell. Cases of the virus continue to reach record levels. Militia groups taunt his government with near-daily rocket attacks targeting Iraqi bases and the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the US Embassy, though they rarely claim casualties.
The recent assassination of prominent Iraqi commentator Hisham al-Hashimi and the kidnapping of German art curator Hella Mewis have led many to question the limits of her leadership. Many believe that the militias are behind these attacks.
Al-Kadhimi said these were carried out by those with an interest in profiting from the chaos.
“These criminal acts are the result of many years of conflict,” he said, accusing the bad policies and mismanagement of his predecessors of having undermined the authority of the state. “So it’s no surprise that criminals are working here and there to destabilize security.”
“We are determined to reform the security establishment and strengthen its capacity to face these kinds of challenges and to hold accountable those who fail to protect civilians and put an end to these outlaw groups,” a- he declared.
He said the protection of diplomatic missions in the Green Zone and for the US-led coalition has been stepped up in response to repeated rocket fire.
Yet holding al-Hashimi’s assassins to account remains a key test for his government. The investigation “continues, the case is open” and “many clues found”, he said, but it remains confidential.
“My government is committed to prosecuting the killers. He made progress in finding the killers of the protesters and gained popular confidence in his goal of establishing the truth, ”he said. “We won’t stop until this is revealed.”
The rise of Al-Kadhimi, after months of political quarrels and dead ends, has not appeased the demands of the demonstrators. But he insisted on presenting himself as their champion: he selected civilian activists from among his close advisers, set the date for the snap elections next year – a key demand from the protesters – and when two protesters were killed recently, he promised them justice within 72 hours.
Keeping its promise to investigate the deaths of the protesters, his office has left 560 dead in total, most of them under fire from Iraqi security forces.
Critics still say al-Kadhimi’s response is insufficient. A raid on Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah suspected of launching rocket attacks in late June ended with the release of all but one detainee. An investigation into the killed protesters did not clarify who their killers really were. Meanwhile, corruption is rampant.
But al-Kadhimi intends to confront even his toughest critics.
To face the economic crisis, his government is working on a “white paper” to produce reforms.
“We are preparing to form a Supreme Committee linked to the Prime Minister to monitor major corruption cases, in addition to major crimes and assassinations. ”