Jordan is only an hour from Iraq by plane but it was too far for US President Barack Obama to come to visit his Iraqi allies in Baghdad. And of course, Iraqi politicians noticed.
The American leader was in Amman, Jordan, last week as part of a four day visit to the Middle East. He also visited Israel and Palestine. However, as was reported by the US press, expectations for any kind of real achievement were apparently fairly low. In Iraq, expectations were even lower.
Iraqis also noticed that Obama barely even mentioned their country during his tour. “There is no doubt that since they withdrew their troops from the country, Iraq is no longer a priority for the US,” Mohammed al-Shabaki, a member of the Committee for Foreign Affairs in the Iraqi Parliament, told NIQASH. “It feels as though the US has completely abandoned Iraq - as if it had never occupied the country and as if it wasn\'t a partner in both the country’s security and the politics.”
Meanwhile Raad al-Dahlaki, an MP for the opposition Iraqiya party blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the perceived lack of warmth from the US. “Al-Maliki has shaken the US’ confidence in him,” al-Dahlaki complained. “The US considered him an important ally and someone who could initiate national reconciliation here. But that hasn’t happened.”
Instead of a Presidential visit, the Iraqi got a surprise visit from John Kerry, the new Secretary of State. At a Baghdad press conference held two hours after his meeting with al-Maliki, Kerry was critical of Iraq for several reasons. Firstly, the fact that Iranian planes were flying through Iraqi airspace with weapons shipments for the Syrian regime, which the US no longer supports. And secondly Kerry was worried about the decision to postpone provincial elections in the Anbar and Mosul provinces, where mostly Sunni Muslim demonstrators have been protesting al-Maliki’s regime. Kerry urged al-Maliki to reconsider the postponement saying that the security factor was not a good enough reason to make voters wait.
“Kerry\'s strong criticism is very revealing,” independent Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman, told NIQASH. “It shows that the US fears its attempt to introduce democracy to Iraq is failing. That’s the reason for this last minute intervention. Kerry also sent a firm message about Syria. That was actually the most important topic on the agenda during his visit.”
Kerry’s comments are some of the first serious criticisms directed at Iraq since the end of 2011, when the US withdrew troops from Iraq. As one retired government official told NIQASH anonymously, “Washington supported al-Maliki. But now they’re worried about the way he is abusing his power and their trust. After ten years here, US influence is waning whereas Iranian influence seems to be growing,” he noted.
Inside Iraq, it also feels that way, at least in terms of the US presence. Roads that were once always occupied by US soldiers are now barren of any military presence. And the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement, covering the two nations’ “overall political, economic, and security relationship” isn’t particularly specific; these days its implementation seems to mostly depend on which mood politicians are in.
Even the role of the US Embassy in Baghdad, which at 104 acres, is renowned as the largest US diplomatic representation in the world, has started to shrink. Last week the US ambassador to Iraq, Robert Stephen Beecroft, said that by the end of the year he expects the number of employees in Iraq to have gone down to 5,500. America used to have around 16,000 staff in Iraq; currently there are around 10,500. And as the Washington Post reported, most of the employees who remain “will be security personnel and other outside contractors assigned to support the fewer than 1,000 diplomats”.
Of course, not everyone minds the shrinking US presence in Iraq. As MP al-Shabaki also added: “it’s also true that some political blocs don’t want the US here and consider it as a threat to Iraq’s sovereignty.”