US and Iraq officials have agreed to reduce the number of American troops in the Middle East country in the coming months but, following resumption of dialogue, fell short of providing a timeframe.
The decision was announced on Thursday following the long-anticipated talks, the first strategic dialogue between the two countries in a decade.
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Chaired by the Senior Under Secretary of Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abdul Karim Hashem Mustafa, and US Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale, the talks were limited to a short preliminary online session due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
They laid out the agenda for what is expected to be a months-long discussion focused on US troops’ withdrawal along with the future of security, counterterrorism, political, economic and cultural relations.
In a joint statement issued on Friday, the US reiterated its commitment to withdrawing its troops from Iraq but fell short of announcing a timeline.
“In light of significant progress towards eliminating the ISIS [or ISIL] threat, over the coming months the US would continue reducing forces from Iraq and discuss with the Government of Iraq the status of remaining forces as both countries turn their focus towards developing a bilateral security relationship based on strong mutual interests,” the statement said.
“The United States reiterated that it does not seek nor request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq.”
The statement added that in-depth discussions addressed at the opening session would likely resume in July in the US capital.
“This is a months-long dialogue aimed at setting principles that have the potential to shape the nature of US-Iraqi relations for this decade,” said independent Iraqi analyst Sajad Jiyad.
“There will eventually be an agreement … but it will not play out in practice right away. The dialogue will be over the long term, perhaps beyond the life of the current Iraqi government,” he added.
Long road ahead
While observers saw the talks as a positive step, they see little change to the status quo.
“The statement and dialogue set the tone for a more cooperative relationship moving forward. They also signal Iraq’s intention to rebalance its external relations with all partners,” said Fanar Haddad, an Iraq expert and research fellow at the National University of Singapore.
“The dialogue sought to order the current status quo and structure US troop presence. That is the limit of what we were expecting and that is what has emerged – lending structure to the status quo,” he added.
Both Jiyad and Iraqi MP Sarkawt Shams agreed that the course of the discussion will also depend on the result of the US election scheduled for November, further adding to the likelihood of a drawn-out dialogue.
“This is just an introduction. Depending on whether Trump or someone else is elected, the course of the discussion and understanding reached between both sides will change,” said Shams, a member of the Kurdish Future bloc.
The US military returned to Iraq in 2014 to help support the government in its fight against ISIL which had taken over large swaths of the country.
But calls for a complete withdrawal of US troops peaked and US-Iraq tensions rose following deadly rocket attacks on US military and diplomatic sites and the killing of Iran’s elite Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, and deputy of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in a US airstrike in the capital, Baghdad, on January 3.
Days after that incident, the Iraqi parliament voted in favour of a complete withdrawal of all foreign troops as Iran-backed armed groups vowed to avenge the killings.
The US-led coalition has since pulled out from six bases and consolidated its presence to only three.
Some Iran-backed groups that led the calls for withdrawal have softened their tone in recent weeks.
Kataeb Hezbollah – which the US has blamed for attacks on its bases – said it would wait to assess the outcome of the first session before taking a formal stance.
Another Iran-backed group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, appeared to draw down calls for an immediate withdrawal with its leader Qais al-Khazali saying on Thursday that a US presence should fall within the bounds of Iraqi law.
Shams told Al Jazeera that the joint statement “might appease some of the militias”.
“While the joint statement showed the US was serious about not seeking a permanent base in Iraq, it also showed neither side wants an immediate withdrawal,” Shams said.
Haddad agreed, saying that the statement “might be satisfactory for the militias as it neutralises populist discourse about US troop withdrawal”.
“But rocket attacks are not likely to disappear because they are tied to regional dynamics and particularly US-Iranian tensions,” he said.
In the joint statement, Iraq has promised to protect US bases on its soil.
Both sets of officials emphasised that the talks, which the US initiated in April, build upon the 2007 negotiations that culminated in the signing of the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) and Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) the following year.
The agreements have since provided a framework for US-Iraq relations and committed to an eventual withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
“This dialogue is founded on the concept of [Iraqi] sovereignty … taking into consideration the opinion of the Iraqi parliament, marji’iya [Iraq’s top Shia authority], political blocs and the interest of Iraq,” said Iraq’s newly appointed Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at a press conference on Thursday.
“These [talks] are a continuation of dialogue that started in 2008. The objective of these talks is to structure our security, economic, financial and even cultural relations,” added al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s former intelligence chief who is considered close to the US.
Echoing Kadhimi, US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told reporters that the US was keen to support Iraq not just on security issues but on economic and cultural matters as well.
The statement said that both countries would work on helping Iraq implement governmental and reforms programmes “in a manner that reflects the aspirations of the Iraqi people”, adding that the US could provide economic advisors to help enact those plans.
Iraq faces a sharp financial crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic and plunging oil prices which its economy is heavily reliant on.
“Since 2003, Iraq has relied on oil to make up 95 percent of its revenue. Due to the collapse of the oil prices, and past mismanagement and lack of strategic planning, we are now facing a real crisis,” al-Kadhimi said.
What next for US troops in Iraq?
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Iran says ‘internal agents’ may be responsible for Natanz blast |NationalTribune.com
Tehran, Iran – The Iranian government said on Tuesday there are strong suspicions that “internal agents” played a role in a massive explosion that occurred at a key nuclear facility earlier this year. On July 2, a fire ripped through a building at Natanz, a major uranium enrichment site. Satellite images showed it caused the…
Tehran, Iran – The Iranian government said on Tuesday there are strong suspicions that “internal agents” played a role in a massive explosion that occurred at a key nuclear facility earlier this year.
On July 2, a fire ripped through a building at Natanz, a major uranium enrichment site. Satellite images showed it caused the roof to collapse and parts of the building were blackened by the blaze.
“One of the strong theories is based on internal agents being involved in the incident,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei told reporters at a news conference, according to the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA).
“The issue is being seriously reviewed by the country’s security organisations and we will announce the results after things are clear.”
It is the first time an Iranian official specifically pointed to the possibility of an inside job for the blast.
In late August, Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization confirmed the damage to the facility was the result of “sabotage”.
“But how this explosion took place and with what materials … will be announced by security officials in due course,” spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said at the time, citing “security reasons” for not disclosing further information.
‘Sabotage is certain’
In early September, Kamalvandi announced Natanz saboteurs “have been identified” but refrained from discussing further details, including whether internal agents were complicit.
On Tuesday, Rabiei also reiterated that “sabotage is certain” but the incident still needs to be investigated due to its complexities.
The desert Natanz site, much of which is underground, is one of several Iranian facilities regularly monitored by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog.
Following the explosion, international media reports indicated Israel may have been behind the attack. Israel has been deliberately vague, neither confirming nor denying involvement while stressing the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“Everyone can suspect us in everything and all the time, but I don’t think that’s correct,” Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said days after the attack.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also said “Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear capabilities”, adding to that end, “We take actions that are better left unsaid.”
September’s announcement that Iran knows the saboteurs behind the Natanz explosion came one week after IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi visited the country.
The trip was successful, leading to Iran granting access to two suspected former nuclear sites that the UN watchdog wished to inspect.
“In this present context, based on analysis of available information to the IAEA, the IAEA does not have further questions to Iran and further requests for access to locations other than those declared by Iran,” the IAEA and Iranian officials said in a joint statement following the visit.
In a speech during the 64th session of the General Conference of the IAEA on Monday, the president of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi referred to the Natanz incident.
“These malicious acts need to be condemned by the agency and member states,” he said via video conference, adding “Iran reserves its rights to protect its facilities and take necessary actions against any threat as appropriate.”
Salehi also urged the UN watchdog not to compromise its “impartiality, independence and professionalism”.
Iran, UN and the United States are locked in a major disagreement centred around the landmark 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers, which US President Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned in May 2018.
The US on Sunday declared it reinstated all UN sanctions on Iran, an announcement that was roundly rejected by the United Nations Security Council as lacking legal basis.
The US is trying to indefinitely extend an arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire in October as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the nuclear deal.
Iran, which has always maintained it never pursued nuclear weapons, accepted the nuclear deal that removed all UN sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
The US reneged on the deal, unilaterally imposing a harsh campaign of sanctions that have hit almost all the productive sectors of the Iranian economy. US sanctions have also targeted Iranian officials and organisations.
In response, starting exactly one year after US sanctions were imposed and other parties failed to guarantee economic benefits promised Iran under the deal, Iran started gradually scaling back its nuclear commitments.
Palestine quits Arab League role in protest over Israel deals |NationalTribune.com
Palestine was meant to chair Arab League meetings for next six months, but FM Riyad al-Maliki has declined the position.Palestine has quit its current chairmanship of Arab League meetings, the Palestinian foreign minister said on Tuesday, condemning as dishonourable any Arab agreement to establish formal ties with Israel. Palestinians see the deals that the United…
Palestine was meant to chair Arab League meetings for next six months, but FM Riyad al-Maliki has declined the position.Palestine has quit its current chairmanship of Arab League meetings, the Palestinian foreign minister said on Tuesday, condemning as dishonourable any Arab agreement to establish formal ties with Israel.
Palestinians see the deals that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed with Israel in Washington a week ago as a betrayal of their cause and a blow to their quest for an independent state in Israeli-occupied territory.
Earlier this month, the Palestinians failed to persuade the Arab League to condemn nations breaking ranks and normalising relations with Israel.
Palestine was supposed to chair Arab League meetings for the next six months, but Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told a news conference in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah that it no longer wanted the position.
“Palestine has decided to concede its right to chair the League’s council [of foreign ministers] at its current session. There is no honour in seeing Arabs rush towards normalisation during its presidency,” Maliki said.
In his remarks, he did not specifically name the UAE and Bahrain, Gulf Arab countries that share with Israel concern over Iran. He said Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit had been informed of the Palestinian decision.
Palestinians rally against Bahrain-Israel normalisation
The Palestinian leadership wants an independent state based on the de facto borders before the 1967 war, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and annexed East Jerusalem.
Arab countries have long called for Israel’s withdrawal from illegally occupied land, a just solution for Palestinian refugees and a settlement that leads to the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state, in exchange for establishing ties with it.
In a new move addressing internal Palestinian divisions, officials from West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction and the Gaza-based Hamas movement were due to hold reconciliation talks in Turkey on Tuesday.
Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 from Fatah forces during a brief round of fighting. Differences over power-sharing have delayed implementation of unity deals agreed since then.
Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies
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