Iraq has been an enemy, a friend, and a frenemy of the United States, depending on the administration in Washington. Now, after two years of relative stability in Iraq and a new government in the United States, the two countries may finally be on the path to sustainable relations. In early August, representatives from both countries met in Washington to launch negotiations on a long-term defense partnership. This dialogue and any potential agreement to follow may settle an enduring question: what kind of relationship should the United States seek with Iraq?
Past attempts by U.S. policymakers to answer this question have drawn on the various roles Iraq has played in the American psyche. Under Saddam Hussein, it was a sanctioned pariah state, an enemy purportedly hell-bent on using weapons of mass destruction; after the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam’s regime, Iraq in turn became an experiment in nation building, a half-hearted partner in the war against terrorism, and a marionette controlled by Iran. Now, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has assigned itself the task of moving beyond this shifting legacy and normalizing the relationship once and for all.
The 2,000 or so U.S. troops stationed in Iraq today focus on training and advising Iraq’s security forces. The end goal is for Iraqi forces to operate autonomously, but for now, the U.S. military conducts campaigns against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Iraq and Syria in cooperation with local partners—including 313 such operations in 2022. Under a new U.S.-Iraqi agreement, technical support and advising will likely continue, with greater emphasis on eventual independence for the Iraqi military—particularly elite units—in the field. Making this transition possible will require better coordination among Iraq’s diffuse security forces, which often compete instead of cooperate.
One factor complicating progress in U.S.-Iraqi relations is the proliferation of militias that report to the prime minister but operate outside the formal command structure of the Iraqi military and, in some cases, appear guided by Iran. There may be a temptation in Washington to predicate future cooperation with Baghdad on the elimination of this channel of Iranian influence, but such an approach would be a mistake. Iraq does not need its already wobbly sovereignty undermined further by misguided U.S. meddling. What it needs is the ability to provide for its citizens and rein in the militias on its own. Helping Iraq strengthen its state capacity is the best way to move toward a more normal, cordial U.S.-Iraqi relationship and to serve the interests of the Iraqi people—without compromising the United States’ own security.
Read the full piece in Foreign Affairs.