US Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Iraq on a previously unannounced visit for talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The visit comes just days after the tenth anniversary of the controversial invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
During the visit Kerry is expected to discuss the war in Syria, ongoing security concerns in Iraq and the overflight of Iranian aircraft carrying weapons and fighters to Syria. Kerry is also expected to speak by telephone to Massoud Barzani, president of the oil rich autonomous region of Kurdistan. Purpose of the call will be to stress Iraqi unity. The visit comes just after the tenth anniversary of the US led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
US President Obama vowed to end war in Iraq prior to his historic election in November 2008, a promise he kept. The last US troops rolled out of Iraq on December 18, 2011 into neighboring Kuwait. The war cost 4,500 US and more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and an estimated $1.7 Trillion.
U.S. officials acknowledged the cost in blood and dollars was high, but tried to paint a picture of victory -- for both the troops and the Iraqi people now freed of a dictator and on a path to democracy. But gnawing questions remain: Will Iraqis be able to forge their new government amid the still stubborn sectarian clashes? And will Iraq be able to defend itself and remain independent in a region fraught with turmoil and still steeped in insurgent threats?
The total withdrawal of US troops came after the US was unable to negotiate a status of forces agreement that would have given US troops immunity from Iraqi prosecution. The US is attempting to negotiate a similar agreement with Afghanistan.
With no troops on the ground US influence in Iraq has faded. The US has been unable to rein in abuses by Prime Minster Maliki, who appears to be settling in as a new dictator. What is troubling is the inability of the US to stop Baghdad from supporting Iran's aid to the Assad regime in terms of arms and fighters.
The Washington Post reports that Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, the senior Sunni in Iraq's coalition government, said that no one in Iraq thinks that the US has influence in Iraq now.
“No one thinks America has influence now in Iraq. America could still do a lot if they wanted to. But I think because Obama chose a line that he is taking care of interior matters rather than taking care of outside problems, that made America weak — at least in Iraq."
With America's influence fading in Iraq, secular violence on the increase and a shift toward Iran, John Kerry will push for Iraqi officials to stop allowing Iranian aircraft to fly over Iraq with military supplies for the Syrian government as it battles rebels.
Since the US departure, a pattern of constant political squabbles has evolved, which has translated into increasing violence among Sunni, Shiite and Kurd factions. There is an increasing concern that Al Qaida has stepped up attacks in parts of Iraq.
Whether or not there is still enough US influence in Iraq for John Kerry to convince Malaki remains to be seen. Limiting the export of Iraqi oil could influence Malaki to listen to and act on US concerns.
John Kerry had a press availability after he met Iraqi leaders, in which he said he was able to affirm to the Iraqi leaders that he met with, that the United States continues to stand with the people of Iraq as they work to establish a democracy and a better future.
Iraq today continues – and I saw this in my meetings and felt it in the discussions that I had – continues to face some tough challenges on fulfilling that promise. It is difficult and – it is difficult for some to find the way to strengthen their democratic institutions and develop its full economic potential, and now that our forces are gone, to ensure that it’s going to be able to stand on its own two feet with respect to the security challenges. I want to assure the Iraqi people today that as you recover from four decades of war and dictatorship, and as you courageously face down lingering menace of terrorism, the United States is going to continue to uphold our end of the Strategic Framework Agreement.