Looking at the current U.S. engagement in the Middle East, one comes to an inescapable realization of the clear contrast between the strong rhetoric of the new Trump administration and the quiet echoes of the Obama administration. It is positive that the Trump administration is paying attention to the Middle East.
But President Trump's decision to visit Saudi Arabia and not Iraq has sent the wrong signals to the Iraqi side about his priorities in region. If America’s number one priority in the region is to defeat Daesh (ISIS) then his visit to Iraq should have been a priority. No country in the world has sacrificed more than Iraq in fighting and pushing back Daesh.
Even from a military perspective, Iraqi forces are by far the most experienced and capable to defeat them—no other regional country can compare.
The Iraqi security forces haven’t lost a battle against Daesh in two years. Any genuine international commitment to defeating the global threat of international terrorism must include a determined focus on rooting out remnants of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, while ensuring that security in Iraq is robust and lasting.
Here, the U.S., with detailed consultation with the Iraqi government, needs to make a firm decision about the extent of its future political and military engagement in Iraq. It needs to send a clear message to its Iraqi counterparts about that commitment.
As President Trump was feted in Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iraq and its challenges and sacrifices, appeared to be an afterthought. It is not just that President Trump did not make the almost customary surprise visit to the country during his trip to the region but that his message from Riyadh—which cast violence in Iraq and the region in sectarian terms—appeared to ignore the fundamental causes of Iraq's suffering, which is not Iranian expansionism but violent jihadist Salafism.
Whether consciously or not, President Trump appeared to reinforce the Saudi narrative that the region is in the midst of a sectarian struggle of good Sunnis versus evil Shia. Yet Iraq's Shia—who make up a majority of both the country's armed forces and its volunteer Popular Mobilization Forces—have fought valiantly against Daesh. No one should doubt their commitment or their loyalty to the Iraqi state they are defending.
The Iraqi government, which is led by Shia Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has been an important ally for the United States and for Iran in fighting a war in which both countries have the same goal: dislodging and eradicating Daesh and defeating international jihadist Salafism.Let us not forget here that the Saudis are not a neutral party, and neither are the Israelis. Both are engaged in a regional power struggle, along with Turkey and Iran. Washington's greatest contribution to peace would be encouraging dialogue among all parties and laying the seeds for a regional security framework that can manage the conflict, not fuel it. A stable Iraq is in the interest of U.S. national security for many reasons, not least Iraq's geopolitical significance due to its location. Regional superpowers like Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to compete in order to assert their positions in the Middle East and establish spheres of influence and Iraq's stance in regard to these rivalries can tip the balance.
Iraq's natural resources and ongoing oil export capabilities also allow it to be an important stabilizing factor in the flow of petroleum to various international markets.
On the security cooperation side, Iraq is at the forefront of the struggle against terrorism conducted by non-state actors, in particular Daesh and the threat it continues to present to international security.
Daesh is not only a threat to the countries of the region; as the bombing in Manchester illustrated, it is a threat to the world. Iraqis are intimately familiar with the threat of violent extremism, we have suffered hundreds of Manchester-type attacks over the past 14 years, which have cost the lives of thousands, including women and children.
Another key factor that puts Iraq in a unique position, one that the West does not focus on, is the important influence of the city of Najaf—currently the preeminent Shia school of jurisprudence—within the Shia world. As Najaf continues to compete for religious influence in the Middle East, Iraq increasingly has the ability to influence the future of Shia Muslim religious authority across the globe.
Finally let us also not forget that, demographically, Iraq is a young nation where the average age is below 20 years old. Youth empowerment is currently not receiving enough attention from the Iraqi government and international programs aimed at empowering the youth will ensure the battle of ideas against Daesh ideology will continue with the aim of a stable Iraq in which young people play a positive role.
A stable, strong Iraq is a key foundation for a stable Middle East so let us all work towards a democratic Iraq that represents all of our common interests.
If Washington seeks a long term security, economical and political partnership with Iraq, as it should, President Trump should have visited our country. Optics mean everything in the Middle East. This was a missed opportunity.