Washington silent as US-crafted regime under fire in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AFP) – It posted tens of thousands of troops in Iraq, huddled with its leaders and helped craft its laws – but with the country swamped by deadly protests, Washington is staying out of the fray.

Its apparent absence during a key turning point in Iraq lays bare how much its interests and influence have waned since the 2003 US-led invasion that opened the door to fellow Shiite-majority neighbour Iran.

“The (US-Iraq) gulf has never been so big, and keeps getting bigger,” a senior Iraqi official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

After the invasion, the US effectively dismantled and rebuilt the Iraqi state, ushering in a new class of political elites with whom it crafted close personal links.

It trained a new military, deploying more than 170,000 troops to Iraq at its peak before withdrawing in 2011.

Since then, American soldiers helped Iraq defeat extremists and US officials conferred closely with their counterparts on the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum, the 2018 parliamentary vote and the ensuing cabinet formation.

Now, protesters across Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south are demanding an overhaul of the US-crafted system, but the US has remained comparatively restrained.

It has issued a half-dozen statements condemning violence but stopped short of using its diplomatic muscle to resolve the crisis.

In the past, Washington would have been “much more overt,” the top Iraqi official told AFP.

“The US back in 2003 shaped this current Iraqi government structure, which delivered this political class,” he said.

“Do they want to be engaged in rectifying it? I think the jury is still out.”

“The bottom line is that the US state-building project in Iraq has failed,” said Kirk Sowell, an analyst who writes the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.

Since protests erupted on October 1, more than 330 people have died, authorities have imposed an internet blackout, and activists have been threatened and kidnapped.

Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telephoned Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and “deplored the death toll”, but four protesters were killed the next day. Perhaps most worrying for the US is the role of Major General Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s pointman for Iraq, in brokering deals among political forces in Baghdad.

“US influence is not really zero, but it is negligible during the current crisis,” said Sowell.

That is partly because Iraq has filled out its own institutions and US troop numbers have drastically dropped, said Robert Ford of the Middle East Institute.

Ford was a diplomat at the sprawling US embassy in Iraq between 2004-2006 and 2008-2010. But the mission now sits mostly empty after an ordered US withdrawal in May, as tensions rose between Tehran and Washington over the former’s nuclear ambitions.