Iraq and U.S. Policy




Updated June 16, 2020
Iraq and U.S. Policy
New Government Takes Office, As Iraq’s Figure 1. Iraq
Challenges Deepen and Multiply
In May 2020, the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR),
confirmed Iraqi National Intelligence Service director
Mustafa al Kadhimi as Prime Minister, and in June finished
confirmation of his cabinet members, bringing months of
political deadlock over government leadership to a close.
Upon taking office, Al Kadhimi declared that his
government would serve in a transitional capacity and
would work to improve security and fight corruption while
preparing for early elections. Iraqi authorities have
instituted curfews and travel restrictions in response to the
COVID-19 pandemic, which poses serious public health,
economic, and fiscal risks to the country.
Prime Minister Al Kadhimi’s priorities include:
 mobilizing resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic;
 “restricting weapons to state and military institutions”;
 addressing what he calls “the worst economic situation
since the formation of the Iraqi state”; and
 “protecting the sovereignty and security of Iraq,

continuing to fight terrorism, and providing a national
Sources: CRS, using ESRI and U.S. State Department data.
vision on the future of foreign forces in Iraq.”
Prime Minister Al Kadhimi may implement some changes
Early elections under a revamped system could introduce
in response to protestors’ demands, but militias, Islamic
new political leadership, but fiscal pressures, political
State insurgents, security sector reform, reconstruction
rivalries, and limited institutional capacity may present
needs, demographic pressures, and oil dependence are
serious hurdles to reform. Al Kadhimi’s administration has
likely to challenge his administration and his successors.
focused on COVID-19 risks and related economic and
Iran-U.S. Tensions Grip Iraq
fiscal fallout and engaged the United States in opening
U.S.-Iran confrontation also has continued to amplify
strategic dialogue talks to reset the relationship.
underlying disputes among Iraqis over government
Demands of Protest Movement Unmet
leadership and Iraq’s international orientation and security
Al Kadhimi’s predecessor, Adel Abd Al Mahdi, resigned in
partnerships. Following escalating Iran-linked threats to
November 2019, after just over a year in office. Abd Al
U.S. and Iraqi personnel in 2018 and 2019, a January 2020
Mahdi served in a caretaker role while political blocs
U.S. air strike in Iraq killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary
grappled over identifying his replacement. His resignation
Guard Corps-Qods Force Commander General Qasem
came as deadly attacks by some security forces and militias
Soleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)
killed hundreds of protestors and wounded thousands across
leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis. In response, the COR voted
central and southern Iraq. A spirited protest movement, of
to direct then-acting prime minister Abd Al Mahdi to
unprecedented scope in Iraq’s post-2003 history, had
remove foreign forces from Iraq, but he deferred pending
erupted in October 2019 and mobilized hundreds of
the formation of a new government. Iran launched missiles
thousands seeking systemic change. While protestors have
at Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces in retaliation for the U.S.
dispersed due to reported public fatigue and COVID-19
strike, injuring U.S. personnel.
mitigation measures, their demands for reform and an end
The U.S. operation eliminated key figures in Iran’s efforts
to corruption and foreign interference remain unsatisfied.
to shape Iraqi security and politics, but also led to the
As protests intensified in late 2019, the COR adopted a new
temporary suspension of security cooperation and training.
election law that would replace Iraq’s list-based system
Iraqi militias since have conducted more rocket attacks,
with an individual candidate- and district-based system. As
killing and injuring U.S., U.K., and Iraqi personnel. U.S.
of June, the law has yet to be finalized and published, with
forces have retaliated, and further escalation is possible.
plans for district and seat allocation pending. Authorities
U.S. officials remain concerned about threats posed by Iran-
are likely to avoid electoral arrangements that could require
backed militias in Iraq, including some PMF units.
a controversial census given intermittent unrest, security
disruptions, and unprecedented public health threats.
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Iraq and U.S. Policy
Pandemic Hits the Budget and Economy U.S. officials note the ability of Islamic State insurgents to
With neighboring Iran hard-hit by COVID-19 and links
exploit weak security and governance in territory disputed
between the two countries diverse and deep, Iraq faced
between the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq.
immediate, multifaceted challenges in containing the initial
spread of the coronavirus. In March, Iraq’s government
Partnership with the United States
instituted travel restrictions and strict internal curfews while
Since 2017, the Trump Administration has sought to
mobilizing health resources. Officials in the federally
promote Iraqi unity and stability, prevent an IS resurgence,
recognized Kurdistan region of northern Iraq also instituted
and limit Iranian influence in Iraq. Iraqi protestors’ calls for
local containment and curfew measures. Iraq’s public and
improved governance, reliable local services, more
private health systems have significant shortcomings and
trustworthy and capable security forces, and greater
limited capacity. According to the World Bank, Iraq has
economic opportunity broadly correspond to stated U.S.
approximately 0.8 physicians and 1.3 hospital beds per
goals. During the peak period of unrest from October 2019
1,000 people (below the global averages of 1.5 and 2.7,
to March 2020, U.S. officials advocated for protestors’
respectively). Reported infections have increased since
rights to demonstrate and express themselves, while urging
April, amid data limitations.
Iraqi leaders to respond seriously to protestors’ demands
Negative economic effects are more apparent, as COVID-
and to avoid attacks against unarmed demonstrators.
19 mitigation measures have deepened an economic
Iraqi and U.S. leaders opened a high-level strategic
contraction that had already begun in urban areas paralyzed
dialogue in June to renew a shared understanding about
by protests in late 2019 and early 2020. In parallel, a
bilateral security cooperation and U.S. assistance. An initial
precipitous drop in global oil prices threatens state finances.
joint statement envisioned a reduced, but enduring U.S.
Iraq remains dependent on oil exports for more than 90% of
military presence to bolster security cooperation. In late
its budget revenue, much of which pays salaries and
April, the Trump Administration notified Congress it would
benefits to state employees and retirees. The draft 2020
waive the imposition of Iran-related sanctions on specific
budget assumed an oil export price of $56 per barrel, but
Iraqi energy sector purchases from Iran for 120 days.
Iraq has since been forced both to accept lower prices and
U.S. military officials judge that Iraq’s security forces
reduce production volumes in accordance with decisions
appear to be approaching a level of capability that could
reached by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting
allow U.S. and other coalition forces to transition from
Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC countries (OPEC+),
providing tactical support to focusing on leadership and
including Russia. International financial institutions expect
institutional development. This could allow for further
that Iraq will need to draw on official reserves, cut
reductions of the U.S. and coalition military presence.
spending, and/or borrow to meet its needs. Cabinet-
approved public sector cuts already have been met with
As of May 2020, U.S. military personnel had consolidated
protests, and low investment spending may decline further.
their basing in Iraq and deployed new missile defenses in
consultation with the Iraqi government. They remain in Iraq
Views from the Kurdistan Region
pursuant to a 2014 exchange of diplomatic notes under the
Leaders of Iraq’s federal Kurdistan Regional Government
2008 bilateral Strategic Framework Agreement. Congress
(KRG) recognized Arab protestors’ concerns and criticized
has authorized U.S. train and equip programs for Iraq
repressive violence during the 2019-2020 protests. They
through December 2020, including aid to KRG forces, and
also convened to unify positions on proposed reforms that
has appropriated defense funding for the train and equip
some Kurds fear could undermine the Kurdistan region’s
programs through September 2021. Since 2014, Congress
rights under Iraq’s constitution. The two largest Kurdish
has appropriated more than $6.5 billion for train and equip
parties, the Erbil-based Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)
programs for Iraqis. The Administration seeks an additional
and the Suleimaniyah-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
$645 million for these programs for FY2021.
(PUK), hold significant numbers of COR seats and won the
The United States provides foreign aid in Iraq in support of
most seats in the KRG’s September 2018 election. KDP
de-mining programs, public sector financial management
leader Masrour Barzani serves as KRG Prime Minister. His
reform, U.N.-coordinated stabilization, and other goals.
cousin Nechirvan Barzani is KRG President. KRG leaders
More than $365 million in U.S. stabilization aid has flowed
are consulting with Baghdad on several oil export, budget,
to liberated areas of Iraq since 2016, including funds to aid
and security issues. The national government suspended
religious and ethnic minority communities. Congress
budget payments to the KRG in April 2020, citing the fiscal
allocated $451.6 million for U.S. foreign aid programs in
effects of lower oil prices and overdue KRG oil transfers.
Iraq in FY2020. The Trump Administration has requested
An additional payment was made in May as plans for
an additional $124.5 million for FY2021. The United States
negotiations on a lasting agreement showed promise.
is the top humanitarian funding donor for Iraq and has
Islamic State Threats and Security Issues provided more than $2.7 billion in humanitarian aid for Iraq
U.S. officials report that Islamic State fighters continue to
programs since 2014. Nearly 1.4 million Iraqis remain
wage “a low-level insurgency” across some areas of Iraq,
internally displaced and many more remain in need of aid.
but credit Iraqi security forces with conducting increasingly
Congress may seek to clarify the Trump Administration’s
independent counterterrorism and counterinsurgency
goals for strategic dialogue with Iraq and offer its own
operations. Press reports and IS claims suggest that attack
perspectives during consideration of FY2021 aid requests
volumes have increased relative to early 2019, with most
and the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
attacks and security force operations occurring in Kirkuk,
Diyala, Salah al-Din, Ninewa, and Anbar governorates.
https://crsreports.congress.gov

Iraq and U.S. Policy

Christopher M. Blanchard, Specialist in Middle Eastern
Affairs
IF10404


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