Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is in Washington this week, trying to drum up financial and military support for his country. His first stop today was the White House, where he met with President Obama.
The administration promised $200 million in humanitarian assistance for Iraqis uprooted by violence. But the heart of the discussion was the joint fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
The timing of Abadi’s visit is important. It comes shortly after U.S. airstrikes helped clear out militants with the Islamic State, or ISIS, from most of Tikrit. But ISIS still controls key areas of Iraq, such as Anbar province and the city of Mosul. Abadi’s government will need continued assistance to wrest back control, something Obama acknowledged today.
“I think this is why we are having this meeting to make sure we are continually improving our coordination to make sure that Iraq security forces are in a position to succeed in our common mission,” he said.
Despite a huge, multiyear American effort to train and equip security forces, Iraq has not been able to uproot ISIS militants on its own. Several army divisions fled after ISIS overran Mosul last summer. The U.S. has sent 3,000 military personnel to train and advise Iraq’s security forces.
“I definitely think there’s more the United States can be providing in terms of military equipment, arms, assistance, training, intelligence support,” says Derek Harvey, a retired army colonel, who advised Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq during the troop surge in 2007. “There’s a whole bucket of things in that regard that are not in the direct combat role,” Harvey added.
Providing broad assistance to Iraq could also help blunt Iran’s growing influence there, says Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. He says that influence was apparent when Iranian-backed militias initially tried to help Iraq’s security forces clear Tikrit.
When they failed, the U.S. came in with airstrikes, allowing Iraq to take back most of the city. Pollack says that caused many Iraqis to rethink what the U.S. can and is willing to do.
“If Prime Minister Abadi comes back from Washington with a big commitment of assistance from the United States, it’s going to allow him to make the case that he’s wanted to make — that the United States really is Iraq’s full partner, that it’s here for the long term and that therefore Iraq does not have to rely on Iran as much as it has so far,” says Pollack.
Pollack says part of that assistance could be to put in a good word when Abadi visits the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund this week to push for billions of dollars in loans.
“We need to recognize that Iraq right now is hurting very badly, under the twin financial problems of low oil prices and increased costs, as a result of the war against ISIS and the fighting inside of Iraq,” he says, adding: “As a result they’re looking at a $21- 22 billion budget deficit. They desperately need cash.”
In return for further U.S. assistance, the Obama administration will be looking for Abadi to stick with pledges to create a more inclusive government and nurture a reconciliation process between the country’s Shiite and Sunni communities. Administration officials believe that is the key to a stable Iraq.