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Biden to host Iraqi leader as Mideast tensions soar, raising questions about US troop presence

President Joe Biden is set to host Iraq’s leader Shia al-Sudani this week for talks that come as tensions across the Middle East have soared over the war in Gaza and Iran’s unprecedented weekend attack on Israel in retaliation for an Israeli military strike against an Iranian facility in Syria.

Quick Read

  • President Joe Biden is scheduled to host Iraqi Prime Minister Shia al-Sudani for critical talks amidst heightened Middle East tensions due to recent conflicts in Gaza and an Iranian attack on Israel.
  • The discussions are poised to address regional stability, economic, trade, and energy issues crucial to Iraq, with the U.S. troop presence in Iraq also on the agenda, although it is not the primary focus.
  • This meeting gains importance as parts of the recent Iranian attack on Israel were launched from or flew through Iraqi airspace, spotlighting ongoing security challenges.
  • The U.S. has been involved in formal discussions since January about concluding the coalition mission established to assist Iraq in combatting the Islamic State, with around 2,000 U.S. troops still stationed under a current agreement with Baghdad.
  • Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, which have significant influence, have escalated attacks against U.S. interests in the region, increasing the complexity of U.S.-Iraq relations.
  • Financial tensions have also surfaced, with the U.S. restricting Iraq’s access to its dollar reserves to curb money laundering activities benefiting Iran and Syria, impacting Iraq’s economy and its official currency valuation.
  • Al-Sudani’s administration, which came to power amid internal political strife and is perceived as having close ties with Tehran, has been navigating a delicate balance between Iran and the U.S.
  • The visit follows several incidents involving U.S. nationals in Iraq, including the murder of Stephen Edward Troell and the kidnapping of Elizabeth Tsurkov, with the latter’s case expected to be discussed during the talks.
  • The Iraqi Prime Minister’s visit to Washington was delayed due to escalating regional tensions and is followed by planned discussions with the Turkish president to address longstanding disputes over oil exports from Kurdish regions in Iraq.

The Associated Press has the story:

Biden to host Iraqi leader as Mideast tensions soar, raising questions about US troop presence

Newslooks- WASHINGTON (AP) —

President Joe Biden is set to host Iraq’s leader this week for talks that come as tensions across the Middle East have soared over the war in Gaza and Iran’s unprecedented weekend attack on Israel in retaliation for an Israeli military strike against an Iranian facility in Syria.

The sharp rise in security fears has raised further questions about the viability of the two-decade American military presence in Iraq, through which portions of Iran’s Saturday drone and missile attack on Israel flew or were launched from. A U.S. Patriot battery in Irbil, Iraq, knocked down at least one Iranian ballistic missile, according to American officials.

President Joe Biden pauses to respond to a question from a member of the traveling press as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, April 12, 2024, enroute to New Castle, Del. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In addition, Iranian proxies have initiated attacks against U.S. interests throughout the region from inside Iraq, making Monday’s meeting between Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Shia al-Sudani all the more critical. The talks will include a discussion of regional stability and future U.S. troop deployments but will also focus on economic, trade and energy issues that have become a major priority for Iraq’s government, according to U.S. officials.

Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are both expected to address the U.S. troop presence in meetings with al-Sudani. “It is not the primary focus of the visit … but it is almost certainly going to come up,” one senior U.S. official said last week.

The U.S. and Iraq began formal talks in January about ending the coalition created to help the Iraqi government fight the Islamic State, with some 2,000 U.S. troops remaining in the country under an agreement with Baghdad. Iraqi officials have periodically called for a withdrawal of those forces.

FILE – Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani chairs negotiations between Iraq and the United States to end the International Coalition mission in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 27, 2024. President Joe Biden is set to host al Sudani Monday, April 15, for talks that come as tensions across the Middle East have soared over the war in Gaza and Iran’s threats to retaliate for an Israeli military strike against an Iranian facility in Syria. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, Pool, File)

The two countries have a delicate relationship due in part to Iran’s considerable sway in Iraq, where a coalition of Iran-backed groups brought al-Sudani to power in October 2022.

The U.S. in recent months has urged Iraq to do more to prevent attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria that have further roiled the Middle East in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Iran’s weekend attacks on Israel through Iraqi airspace have further underscored U.S. concerns, although al-Sudani had already left Baghdad and was en route to Washington when the drones and missiles were launched.

The U.S. has also sought to apply financial pressure over Baghdad’s relationship with Tehran, restricting Iraq’s access to its own dollars in an effort to stamp out money laundering said to benefit Iran and Syria.

Most previous Iraqi prime ministers have visited Washington earlier in their tenure. Al-Sudani’s visit was delayed because of tensions between the U.S. and Iran and regional escalation, including the Gaza war and the killing of three U.S. soldiers in Jordan in a drone attack in late January. That was followed by a U.S. strike that killed a leader in the Kataib Hezbollah militia whom Washington accused of planning and participating in attacks on U.S. troops.

FILE – Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani attends a ceremony in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 9, 2024. The White House announced Friday, March 22, that President Joe Biden plans to host al-Sudani on April 15 as the countries hold formal talks about winding down the mission of a U.S.-led military coalition formed to fight the Islamic State group in Iraq. (Murtadha Al-Sudani/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Al-Sudani came to power in late 2022 after a power struggle between prominent Shiite cleric and political leader Muqtada Sadr and opposing Shiite factions that are close to Iran after the 2021 elections. Sadr ultimately withdrew from the political process, giving the opportunity to the remaining Shia politicians to form a government headed by al-Sudani.

Since then, al-Sudani has attempted to maintain a balancing act between Iran and America despite being seen as being close to Tehran and despite several incidents that have put his government in an embarrassing position in relation to Washington.

Early in al-Sudani’s term, a U.S. citizen, Stephen Edward Troell, was shot and killed by armed men who accosted him as he pulled up to the street where he lived in Baghdad’s central Karrada district with his family. An Iraqi criminal court convicted five men last August and sentenced them to life in prison in the case, which officials described as a kidnapping gone wrong.

A few months later, Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli-Russian doctoral student at Princeton, was kidnapped while doing research in Iraq. Al-Sudani’s visit will come about a year after Tsurkov’s abduction. She is believed to be held by Kataib Hezbollah.

The senior U.S. official said Tsurkov’s case would also be raised.

“We are concerned by and closely tracking this case,” the official said. “We have strongly condemned her abduction. We’ve urged … and continue to urge senior Iraqi officials to find Elizabeth and to secure her release as soon as possible.”

Al-Sudani started his term with promises to focus on economic development and fight corruption, but his government has faced economic difficulties, including a discrepancy in the official and market exchange rates between the Iraqi dinar and the U.S. dollar.

The currency issues came in part as a result of a U.S. tightening of the dollar supply to Iraq, as part of a crackdown on money laundering and smuggling of funds to Iran. The U.S. has disallowed more than 20 Iraqi banks from dealing in dollars as part of the campaign.

The al-Sudani government recently renewed Iraq’s contract to purchase natural gas from Iran for another five years, which could lead to American displeasure.

The Iraqi prime minister will return to Iraq and meet with the Turkish president following his trip to Washington, which could finally lead to a solution to a long-running dispute over exports of oil from Kurdish areas of Iraq to Turkey. Washington has sought to get the flow of oil to resume.

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