Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi To Meet With Trump

Aug 20, 2020
Originally published on August 20, 2020 11:46 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today Iraq's new prime minister meets President Trump here in Washington, D.C. He's a new leader after protests against corruption forced a government shakeup. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi must also manage the aftermath of an event in January. The United States killed an Iranian general who was visiting Iraq at the time, which prompted Iraqi lawmakers to call on U.S. troops to go home.

NPR's Jane Arraf covers Iraq and joins us from Amman, Jordan. Hi there, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is the new prime minister?

ARRAF: Well, as you say, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi - interesting guy. He has been an exile till 2003, when he came back to Iraq as a journalist. And then he was chosen as the country's intelligence chief. He took power just this May at a crucial time in Iraq. And his predecessor, who was never received at the White House, was forced to step down after months of antigovernment protests against corruption, lack of government services, Iranian influence. And that, of course, is one of the main concerns of the U.S.

Now, Kadhimi's main job is to prepare Iraq for early elections that break with the past. But he's also trying to implement all these reforms. And he's dealing with a pandemic, a drop in oil prices and a lot of pressure by the U.S. to comply with sanctions against Iran, which happens to be one of Iraq's neighbors and one of its biggest trading partners.

INSKEEP: Yeah, a complicated situation - not exactly an outsider, even if he's a new prime minister, if he'd been the intelligence chief. How is the new prime minister likely to get along with the president?

ARRAF: Probably - well, certainly a lot better than his predecessor, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who never got to see Trump, even though Trump visited Iraq and didn't make an effort to meet him. That was seen as punishment for the previous Iraqi prime ministers not doing enough to stop militia attacks on U.S. interests. But Kadhimi's sort of a bit different. He's worked for U.S.-backed media organizations, and he probably has a feel for the U.S. in a way that his predecessor didn't.

INSKEEP: Sounds like he faces a dire situation at home.

ARRAF: Absolutely. You know, that term, at the crossroad - overused a lot, but this one really is. So one of the main issues is whether Kadhimi can rein in Iran-backed militias as he's promised. And he's promised the U.S. and Iraqi people.

To illustrate this, just yesterday in Basra, Iraq's second-biggest city, a female physician who was a protest activist was killed by gunmen on motorcycles. And that was just a day after Kadhimi fired the Basra security commander. So the timing here is taken by a lot of Iraqis as a warning from these militias as to, don't get too comfortable; you know who still rules the streets, and it's not Iraqi forces. So he's caught between that and the U.S., which, after all, has 5,000 - roughly 5,000, troops in Iraq. All in all, a tough balancing act...

INSKEEP: In a couple of seconds, does Kadhimi have a card to play in that Iraq does have a lot of oil still?

ARRAF: Yeah, there are actually billions of dollars at stake in potential deals. And Kadhimi, in fact, spoke to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday. Here's a bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER MUSTAFA AL-KADHIMI: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: He told them he was cracking down on corruption that's been rampant in Iraq. And that's a big deal for U.S. firms who are trying to do business in his country. In fact, five U.S. firms have signed agreements in principle on this visit - on this trip, worth up to $8 billion in the oil and electricity fields. But also part of this trip are tough talks on Iraq, stopping imports it says it needs from Iran of electricity and fuel. So far, Iraq has been getting U.S. Treasury Department waivers for those imports. But the U.S. wants it to stop to help it further isolate Iran.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jane Arraf. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.