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Biden and Kadhimi seal agreement to end US combat mission in Iraq

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US President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi sealed an agreement on Monday (26 July) formally ending the US combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, but US forces will still operate there in an advisory role, write Steve Holland and Trevor Hunnicutt.

The agreement comes at a politically delicate time for the Iraqi government and could be a boost for Baghdad. Kadhimi has faced increasing pressure from Iran-aligned parties and paramilitary groups who oppose the US military role in the country.

Biden and Kadhimi met in the Oval Office for their first face-to-face talks as part of a strategic dialogue between the United States and Iraq.

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"Our role in Iraq will be ... to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission," Biden told reporters as he and Kadhimi met.

There are currently 2,500 US troops in Iraq focusing on countering the remnants of Islamic State. The US role in Iraq will shift entirely to training and advising the Iraqi military to defend itself.

The shift is not expected to have a major operational impact since the United States has already moved toward focusing on training Iraqi forces.

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Still, for Biden, the deal to end the combat mission in Iraq follows decisions to carry out an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan and wrap up the U.S. military mission there by the end of August.

Together with his agreement on Iraq, the Democratic president is moving to formally complete US combat missions in the two wars that then-President George W. Bush began under his watch nearly two decades ago.

A US-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 based on charges that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was ousted from power, but such weapons were never found.

In recent years, the US mission was focused on helping defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

"Nobody is going to declare mission accomplished. The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS," a senior administration official told reporters ahead of Kadhimi's visit.

The reference was reminiscent of the large "Mission Accomplished" banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier above where Bush gave a speech declaring major combat operations over in Iraq on May 1, 2003.

"If you look to where we were, where we had Apache helicopters in combat, when we had U.S. special forces doing regular operations, it's a significant evolution. So by the end of the year we think we'll be in a good place to really formally move into an advisory and capacity-building role," the official said.

U.S. diplomats and troops in Iraq and Syria were targeted in three rocket and drone attacks earlier this month. Analysts believed the attacks were part of a campaign by Iranian-backed militias. Read more.

The senior administration official would not say how many U.S. troops would remain on the ground in Iraq for advising and training. Kadhimi also declined to speculate about a future US drawdown, saying troop levels would be determined by technical reviews.

Kadhimi, who is seen as friendly to the United States, has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militias. But his government condemned US air strikes against Iran-aligned fighters along its border with Syria in late June, calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Read more.

In remarks to a small group of reporters after the talks, Kadhimi stressed that his government was responsible for responding to such attacks. He acknowledged that he had reached out to Tehran to address them.

"We speak to Iranians and others in an attempt to put a limit to these attacks, which are undermining Iraq and its role," he said.

The United States plans to provide Iraq with 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech (PFE.N), COVID-19 vaccine under the global COVAX vaccine-sharing program. Biden said the doses should arrive in a couple of weeks.

The United States will also provide $5.2 million to help fund a U.N. mission to monitor October elections in Iraq.

"We're looking forward to seeing an election in October," said Biden.

Iraq

With EU support, Iraq is slowly advancing on anti-corruption

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Since the US-led invasion to oust long-time dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, corruption has become Iraq’s unshakable scourge, with successive governments trying and failing to tackle the problem. Now, however, the publication of the country’s Anti-Corruption Strategy for 2021-24, which was prepared by the Iraq Integrity Authority (IIA) and approved by President Barham Salih, is hoped to provide a renewed push for concerted anti-corruption action in Iraq.

The document comes mere weeks after the EU, UN and Iraq launched a partnership to suppress corruption in the country. The €15 million project seeks to “revise Iraq’s anti-corruption laws, training investigators and judges, and working to boost the role of civil society”, improving the justice system being the final objective.  In light of the new project – along with a new anti-graft draft law currently being discussed that aims to recover stolen funds and hold the perpetrators accountable – Iraq’s own Anti-Corruption Strategy comes at a time when international cooperation to curb illegal activities is at a new high.

Going after businessmen and judges

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These initiatives are part of a wider EU-supported push by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s, whose aggressive anti-corruption drive is targeting crooked government and judiciary officials in a bid to stop the massive budgetary losses that result from criminal activities. After all, al-Kadhimi came to power after public protests against the incompetence and immorality of the prior government in October 2019. The demonstrations prompted a shake-up in the Iraqi parliament, with al-Kadhimi promising to take a hard line on corruption upon his ascension to the hotseat.

Al-Kadhimi can already claim a clutch of high-profile arrests, including several prominent politicians, a well-connected businessman and a retired judge. In August 2020, he set up a special committee tasked with targeting high-profile individuals guilty of graft, with the first arrests of two officials and one businessman following the month after. The head of the national Retirement Fund and the chief of the Investment commission were the two civil servants apprehended, but it’s the businessman – Bahaa Abdulhussein, the CEO of electronic payment firm Qi Card – who perhaps represents the biggest fish, since his ample friends in high places demonstrate that even well-connected fraudsters no longer are safe from the law.

The biggest case so far this year is that of retired judge Jafar al Khazraji, who recently was handed a sentence of “severe imprisonment” for the illegal inflation of his spouse’s wealth by some $17 million in undeclared assets. According to the IIA, Khazraji was not only ordered to repay the sum in full, but was additionally slapped with an $8 million fine. The case is a landmark one given that it represents the first time that the judiciary has prosecuted an individual under a law against illicit gain of material wealth at the expense of the Iraqi people.

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The reclamation of $17 million is certainly a positive development, but represents a mere drop in the ocean when compared to the $1 trillion which al-Kadhimi estimates Iraq has lost to corruption in the last 18 years. However, the precedent-setting nature of the sentence could be more valuable in stamping out malfeasance and encouraging the FDI that Iraq so desperately needs to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure.

Iraq’s economy on the line

Indeed, the prosecution of al Khazraji is significant for another reason. The judge had ruled against international companies Orange and Agility in their case against the Iraqi telecommunications firm Korek. The two foreign interests alleged that Korek had expropriated their investments without due recourse to the law, a stance which was refuted first by al Khazraji and then confirmed by the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

The ICSID verdict has been severely criticized as “fundamentally flawed” by Agility, because the ICSID essentially handed corrupt officials in the country carte blanche to do what they like with investors’ money, thus sending out sizable red flags to the overseas investment community. This is a development of which the EU has certainly taken note, even if the arrest of a judge implicated in the case may go some way towards restoring that fading faith in Iraqi justice.

European support on Iraq’s long road ahead

Such restoration is sorely needed, not least to rekindle the economy, which shrank by 10.4% in 2020, the largest contraction since the days of Saddam Hussein. Iraq’s GDP-to-debt ratio is expected to remain high, while inflation could reach 8.5% this year. Al-Kadhimi is certainly up against quite the challenge, with even his own party members stating that 17 years of entrenched corruption will need to be swept away in order to give the country a fresh start.

These are just the first steps on a long road to bring Iraq back from the brink, and the fact that every successive government since Hussein’s deposition has launched its own anti-corruption initiatives – and then failed to follow through on them – may make Iraqis wary of getting their hopes up. However, the initial arrests of prominent individuals, alongside the publication of an official Strategy aimed at unpicking the knotty tangle of corruption in the country’s higher echelons, are, at least on a technical level, encouraging indicators that the government’s efforts are standing on solid ground.

The EU’s role is now in helping the government maintain the positive momentum. Brussels has done well to remain in intimate contact with key figures in order to ensure the implementation of the IIA’s Anti-Corruption Strategy. Although it’s evident that a steep hill remains to be climbed, if even a few suggested reforms are realised – including a transition to e-governance, or an increase in the participation and collaboration of civil society groups – the government may edge forward in doing what none of its predecessors have managed.

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Le Pen 'is a disturbance to public order' - Goldschmidt

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Commenting on the interview with the party leader of the French right-wing populist Rassemblement National (RN) Marine Le Pen (pictured) published in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), has issued the following statement: “It is not the headscarf that is a disturbance to public order, but Ms Le Pen. This is clearly the wrong signal to the Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities living in France. It expresses Ms Le Pen’s fear of foreigners. She is dividing society instead of uniting it, and in doing so, she is deliberately using the Jewish community, which according to her should refrain from wearing the kippah, as collateral damage in her fight against cultures.

“The supporters of the ban are convinced that they are fighting radical Islam. But how do they define radical Islam? I define radical Islam as Islamism that does not tolerate secular Muslims, Christians and Jews and the European society as a whole. This radical Islam can also walk around in jeans and with uncovered hair. It is this that is the real danger, as France has often so bitterly experienced. Instead of attacking political Islam and its supporters, a religious symbol is being attacked.

“Le Pen’s demand is nothing other than an attack on the fundamental and human right of religious freedom, which people in many places in Europe are now repeatedly trying to restrict. This is an alarming trend for all religious minorities.”

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Iraq’s budget spat masks collaborative corruption

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Just a few weeks after Pope Francis made his historic visit to Iraq, marking the first time a bishop of Rome visited the Middle Eastern country and its storied (if dwindling) Christian community, the political wrangling over the Iraqi government’s budget quickly overshadowed any good feelings that might have followed the pontiff’s trip. Last week, after three months of disputes between Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi's government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, Iraq’s parliament finally approved a 2021 budget amidst dueling health and economic crises that have left as much as 40% of the country’s population in poverty, per the World Bank, writes Louis Auge.

In the days ahead of the vote, however, explosive new reporting from Agence France-Press (AFP) revealed the extent to which the public confrontations between Iraq’s different ethnic and sectarian factions hide an almost admirable level of cooperation in defrauding both the Iraqi public purse and just about any trader seeking to bring goods through Iraq’s poorly controlled borders. While Pope Francis called upon Iraq’s leaders to “combat the scourge of corruption, misuse of power and disregard for law,” the AFP discovered that the country’s powerful Shi’ite paramilitary groups, many of whom enjoy close links with neighboring Iran, are siphoning billions of dollars meant for Iraq’s cash-strapped treasury into their own pockets.

Of course, given the experience of French telecoms giant Orange at the hands of Iraq’s authorities, the AFP’s revelations of corruption in Iraqi officialdom likely caused little surprise in Paris, where Emmanuel Macron welcomed Iraqi Kurdistan’s president, Nechirvan Barzani, last week.

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Paramilitary cartels make Iraq’s border crossings 'worse than a jungle'

According to the AFP, goods transiting into or out of Iraq are effectively subject to a parallel system, dominated by the Shi’ite militia groups who once fought alongside Iraqi government forces to defeat the Islamic State but which have now resorted to extortion at Iraq’s borders to fund their operations. Collectively known as the Hashd al-Sha’bi or “Popular Mobilization Forces” (PMF), these groups have secured positions for their own members and allies as police, inspectors, and agents at border crossings, and especially at Umm Qasr, Iraq’s only deepwater port. Officials and workers who defy the groups’ control over these facilities are subject to death threats, and government schemes to move personnel between posts have failed to break up the cartel.

Controlling Iraq’s borders has turned out to be a lucrative endeavor for the PMF. As one official told the AFP, operatives are able to demand up to $120,000 a day in bribes for importers and exporters, who are faced with the prospect of interminable delays at the border unless they agree to pay customs agents under the table. The proceeds from these arrangements are diligently divided between the groups making up the cartel, including those ostensibly in direct conflict with one another. To prevent concerted state action against their illicit activities, the cartel is able to rely on its allies within Iraq’s political institutions.

Losing control over its borders has come at a high price for the Iraqi state, with Iraq’s finance minister Ali Allawi admitting Baghdad manages to collect only a tenth of the customs revenues it should otherwise be due. The dynamics of the corruption described by the AFP, in which Iraq’s political and legal institutions are either directly complicit in graft or powerless to stop it, seem to be par for the course for any actor looking to business in the country – as a number of previous foreign investors can attest.

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Outsiders are far from immune

France’s Orange, for example, is currently suing the Iraqi government in a $400 million case currently being heard by the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in Washington. In 2011, Orange and Kuwaiti logistics firm Agility undertook a joint $810 million investment in Iraq’s Korek Telecom. A mere two years after their initial investment, and just before their joint venture was slated to take majority ownership of Korek, Iraq’s Communications and Media Commission (CMC) decided to revoke Orange and Agility’s shares in the company and hand control of Korek back to its previous owners, all without any restitution to two of Iraq’s most prominent outside investors.

In the time since, revelations from outlets including the Financial Times and France’s Libération have fueled allegations that Korek’s current owners – namely Sirwan Barzani, a cousin of President Nechirvan Barzani – corrupted members of the CMC ahead of their decision to “expropriate” Orange and Agility. Unable to secure restitution through Iraqi courts, Orange thus turned to the ICSID in October of last year, a step its partner Agility took in 2017.

Ruling on Agility’s case, the ICSID tribunal composed of attorneys Cavinder Bull, John Beechey, and Sean Murphy found in favor of Iraq and against the company this past February, indicating trouble on the horizon for Orange as its own complaint goes before the body. In its response to the ICSID decision, Agility decried the ICSID panel for denying “requests for protection of the identity of its Iraqi witnesses,” pointing out the company’s employees were subjected to arbitrary detention and threats by Iraqi police during the proceedings.

Those allegations echo the AFP’s reporting about the corruption of Iraqi police forces and Iraq’s judiciary, with Iraqi attorneys telling the news service that “with one phone call, elected representatives, officials can make a judge drop the charges against them, either with a threat or by paying a bribe.” Having survived mass anticorruption protests in 2019 and demonstrated their ability to thwart the work of international legal bodies, it appears Iraq’s political class and its constellation of paramilitary forces may have little to fear beyond each other – and, of course, admonishments from the Pope.

A spokesperson for Korek said: “A number of seriously false and defamatory allegations have been made by Agility and Orange as part of a campaign to destroy Korek through a scorched earth strategy of multiple litigations and arbitrations.

“Korek believes that Agility and Orange have been grossly misrepresenting and mischaracterising facts while acting against the best interests of Korek and its shareholders.

“So far, Orange and Agility have not succeeded in any of their claims and Mr. Barzani will continue to vigorously defend himself in all of these proceedings.  Mr. Barzani has acted and will continue to act in the best interests of Korek, its stakeholders, and the people of Kurdistan and Iraq.”

Photograph: Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Photograph by the Media Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq, Creative Commons License 2.5.

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