AP Interview: Iraqi leader says country still needs US help

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Mustafa al-Kadhimi

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister said Monday ahead of a much anticipated trip to Washington that his country still needs U.S. assistance to counter the threat posed by the Islamic State group and that his administration is committed to introducing security sector reforms as rogue militia groups stage near-daily attacks against the seat of his government.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press that Iraq currently does not need direct military support on the ground, and that the levels of help will depend on the changing nature of the threat.

Al-Kadhimi is slated to meet with President Donald Trump in Washington this week to conclude a strategic dialogue launched in June to reconfigure U.S.-Iraq ties.

Al-Kadhimi, who is backed by the United States, assumed office in May when Baghdad’s relations with Washington were precarious. The January killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a top Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in an American drone strike in Baghdad prompted demands by Shiite lawmakers that U.S. forces leave Iraq.

Three years since Iraq declared victory over IS, sleeper cells continue to stage attacks across the country’s north. Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition has been carrying out a planned drawdown this year as Iraqi security forces take the lead in combat and air raids.

“In the end, we will still need cooperation and assistance at levels that today might not require direct and military support, and support on the ground,” al-Kadhimi said. He said the cooperation “will reflect the changing nature of terrorism’s threat,” including continued training and weapons support.

Al-Kadhimi has often had to walk a tightrope amid the U.S.-Iran rivalry. Asked if he was bringing any messages from Tehran following a recent visit there, he said: “We do not play the role of postman in Iraq.”

Sworn in as premier in the wake of historic mass anti-government protests, al-Kadhimi’s administration inherited a myriad of crises. State coffers in the crude-dependent country were slashed following a severe drop in oil prices, adding to the woes of an economy already struggling with the aftershocks of the global coronavirus pandemic.

State violence used to quell the mass protests that erupted in October brought public trust in the government to a new low. Tens of thousands of Iraqis marched decrying rampant government corruption, poor services and unemployment, leading to the resignation of the previous premier, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Al-Kadhimi’s administration set a lofty agenda that included enacting economic reform, battling corruption, avenging protesters and bringing arms under the authority of the state. The latter has pitted his government against rogue Iranian-backed militia groups.

Three months in, his administration suffered setbacks. Protests by pensioners stymied plans to cut state salaries as revenues from oil dwindled. Virus cases continue to reach record highs. Militia groups taunt his government with near daily rocket attacks targeting Iraqi bases and the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy, though they rarely cause casualties.

The recent assassination of prominent Iraqi commentator Hisham al-Hashimi and the kidnapping of German art curator Hella Mewis have led many to question the limits of his leadership. Many believe militias are behind those attacks.

Al-Kadhimi said these were perpetrated by those with an interest in profiting from chaos.

“These criminal acts are the result of many years of conflict,” he said, blaming poor policies and improper management by his predecessors for undermining the authority of the state. “It is not surprising then that criminals work here and there to destabilize security.”

“We are committed to reforming the security establishment and enhancing its ability to deal with these kinds of challenges and holding accountable those who fail to protect civilians and put an end to these outlawed groups,” he said.

He said protection of diplomatic missions in the Green Zone and for the U.S.-led coalition had been fortified in response to the repeated rocket fire.

Still, holding to account al-Hashimi’s killers remains a key test of his government. The investigation “continues, the case is open,” and “many clues found,” he said, but it remains confidential.

“My government has pledged to pursue the killers. It has made some progress in uncovering the killers of the demonstrators and has gained popular confidence in its aim to establish the truth,” he said. “We will not stop until it is revealed.”

Al-Kadhimi’s rise, following months of political bickering and deadlock, did not pacify the demands of protesters. But he made it a point to portray himself as their champion: He selected civil activists among his close advisers, set next year as the date for early elections — a key demand of demonstrators — and when two protesters were killed recently he promised them justice within 72 hours.

Making good on a vow to investigate protester deaths, his office produced a number of total lives lost at 560, most under fire from Iraqi security forces.

Critics still say al-Kadhimi’s response falls short. A raid on Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah, under suspicion of launching the rocket attacks in late June, ended with the release of all but one of those detained. An investigation into slain protesters did not make explicit who their killers actually were. Meanwhile, corruption is widespread.

But al-Kadhimi has plans to face even his toughest detractors.

To deal with the economic crisis his government is working on a “white paper” to produce reforms.

“We are preparing to form a supreme committee linked to the prime minister to follow up on major corruption cases, in addition to major crimes and assassinations.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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