BAGHDAD | After months of rocket fire and the coldest of relations, Iraq and the United States resume their talks on Thursday, partners now inclined to dialogue, but whose room for maneuver is reduced.
In Baghdad, a new prime minister has arrived, former intelligence chief Moustafa al-Kazimi, who is believed to be close to the Americans and his Arab allies. And above all, for the moment, the pro-Iran factions are in retreat.
But the videoconference – COVID-19 requires – scheduled for this Thursday at 4 p.m. local time will only be the beginning of a long process without any radical change in perspective, warn experts and officials. Together, senior officials from the two countries have the main topics defined, which will then be entrusted to committees for long-term discussions.
“US-Iraqi relations will not be redefined overnight,” said Robert Ford of the Middle East Institute.
But, “for once, there are the right people, in the right place and at the right time”, continues this former American diplomat who himself took part in the last “strategic dialogue” in 2008.
At the time, the United States established conditions for its departure after invading Iraq. Since then, their troops have returned – far fewer in number – to lead a coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group.
More than two and a half years after the “victory” over the jihadists, the thousands of American soldiers in Iraq will once again be a central subject.
After 30 rocket attacks on Americans, Washington’s January assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi lieutenant in Baghdad has sparked anti-American sentiment once again.
Shia lawmakers voted to deport foreign soldiers and Washington threatened to hit dozens of paramilitary sites.
But the arrival of Mr. Kazimi changed the situation. The man has taken the reins of a country in the midst of an economic crisis and which is still demanding justice for some 550 demonstrators killed in the repression of an unprecedented revolt.
If his predecessor Adel Abdel Mahdi has never managed to get an invitation to Washington, Kazimi, in office for a month, already has his card for the White House this year, assure AFP two government officials.
“There was a problem of trust with the old cabinet, it has changed,” insists one of them.
In this climate, all subjects will be discussed Thursday, primarily that of American soldiers.
“Will we still be able to fly surveillance drones?” Do the Iraqis still want our information? “Wonders a senior US coalition official.
Already, the coalition is only on three Iraqi bases, against a dozen previously.
“We do not yet have details on the number of soldiers, but the American proposal mentions” a reduction of troops “,” an Iraqi official told AFP.
However, a drastic reduction seems highly improbable as the jihadist threat remains present, argue the other countries of the coalition, suspended in the American-Iraqi dialogue, for which they are not a party.
“Non-Americans in the coalition will only stay in Iraq if the Americans stay,” said an AFP diplomat.
The economy, “problem number 1”
Other parties are not invited, but will closely follow the dialogue: Iran’s allies in Iraq.
Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesman for their parliamentary bloc – leader of the expulsion vote – recently reiterated that he gave the Americans six months to leave.
Again, Monday and Wednesday, two rockets hit US soldiers and diplomats in Baghdad as a reminder.
The tone is less aggressive, however. Hezbollah, the most radical pro-Iran faction brigades, have announced that they will not give up until Thursday.
“This withdrawal gives more room for maneuver to Mr. Kazimi and the Americans,” said Ford.
But the first issue for Iraq, hit by the fall of oil, remains the economy.
In the long term, “strategic dialogue” could secure US construction and energy contracts and boost for aid from the Gulf or the World Bank.
“Washington cannot give money, only offer not to apply its sanctions,” which would deprive Iraq of its Iranian energy supplier, said Ford, however.