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Al-Abadi in Washington; Obama’s last chance to win Iraq

By Sarkawt Shamsulddin

This week Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al-Abadi, is in Washington for the first time since taking office. Mr. Abadi, indeed, has some good news to share with the White House. The liberations of Tikrit enhanced cooperation with Sunni fighters in Anbar and assuring Peshmerga's collaboration in the upcoming operations to liberate Mosul, all will be in alignment with President Obama’s agenda.

Obama's last Chance to win Iraq

The White House visit with PM Abadi is scheduled for Tuesday, April 14th, 2015. Abadi’s visit comes at a crucial moment for Iraqi Security Forces and US-Led coalition conducting operations against ISIS in Anbar, Tikrit, Kirkuk and Mosul and efforts putting ISIS is on the defensive.

Abadi has received Washington’s praise for his works such as nominating a Sunni leader as Iraqi defense minister, an action item former Iraq PM Al-Malki failed to do during the last four years of his second term. PM Abadi also brokered a deal with the Kurdistan regional government in December 2014 which will allow for oil and revenue sharing. These substantial actions are in line with Washington’s desire and show a willingness of  Abadi to work with the West.

There is a major disconnect however between Abadi’s claims and actions on the ground. The Sunni fighters in Anbar are not receiving  enough ammunition and weapons to liberate Anbar Province, despite Washington’s pressure on Baghdad. Consequently, Sunni tribesmen have suffered substantial casualties  in Anbar in the last couple of months and as a result they lost thousands of lives. On the other hand, Shia militias, mostly backed by Iran, have been issued US made weapons, including major weapon systems and  are supported directly by Iraqi air force attacks. This cooperation has had the effect of slowing ISIS advances toward Diyala and other Shi’a majority targets.

When I questioned Jen Psaki, former State Department Spokesperson, she did not hesitate to say that the deal between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish government is working well. The agreement reached between  Erbil and Baghdad allows Erbil to sell 250,000 bbl per day of its oil under Iraq’s national oil company SOMO, something the KRG refused to do for years. In return, Baghdad will send a portion of the KRG’s share from the federal budget, not however the complete share. The deal has been sustained so far but is facing numerous obstacles.

The only reason it is still working is that both parties are engaged in bigger challenges with ISIS. The KRG is not happy and will likely back away from the deal once the ISIS threats are eliminated. Furthermore, the KRG is under pressure from the Kurdish citizens to provide necessities of life such as food and shelter  and the only way to finance this is with the money from Baghdad.

Washington is leveraging the threat of ISIS to push all parties to work together and so far, it is succeeding.  Notwithstanding, Washington should use its Embassy in Baghdad and Consulate General in Erbil to greater effect. Any deal among Iraqis, Kurd, Shia, and Sunni requires enormous amounts of outside pressure but should not be the threat of ISIS alone.

The United States should use its power to guarantee the commitment of all parties to abide by the deals worked out since relying on Iraq’s judicial system that is politicized,  cannot solve the current sectarian legal issues. There are numerous constitutional issues between Baghdad and Erbil, but no side has ever taken the case to the Iraqi courts because they do not trust them. They prefer legal actions take place in international courts or the case of oil sale in  US courts.

The Kurds look for outside support in order to decrease Baghdad’s financial and political pressure. The Sunnis eye Saudi Arabia as well as Turkey for protection from Iranian influence in Baghdad. The Shia, the majority, seem to have backing from both Tehran and Washington to legitimize their claims. They have used this privilege to oppress Sunnis and undermine Kurds.

During his visit on Tuesday, it is necessary to impress on Abadi that Washington will not rubber stamp Baghdad’s actions without prior agreement with Kurds and Sunnis. The White House should reiterate its commitment to a power-sharing government in Baghdad and a broader federalism as Vice President Biden reemphasized in his speech at National Defense University.

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