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Iraq and Biden's 2006 plan to introduce federalism

President-elect Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Chase Center on 7 November 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. [Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images]
President-elect Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Chase Center on 7 November 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware [Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images]

The Americans have elected a new resident for the White House, a Democrat to turn the page on four miserable years of "Trumpism". President-elect Joe Biden will be asked to make many changes, not least to improve the image of his country around the world.

Iraq did not feature in the election campaign but is likely to be a permanent file on Biden's desk. He backed the US invasion in 2003 before changing his mind. As Vice President to Barack Obama, he was involved in the decision to withdraw US forces from Iraq which he saw as an opportunity to atone for his earlier mistake.

When he was a Senator for Delaware, Biden proposed a plan in 2006 to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions, believing that this would allow US forces to leave Iraq by 2008. Without this move, he predicted, Iraq would enter a spiral of sectarian violence and help to destabilise the region. At the time, US troops were getting burned by the Iraqi resistance, facing hundreds of attacks every day.

Biden's prophecy was accurate. A sectarian war broke out on the day that the shrine of Imam Ali Al-Hadi in Samarra was bombed; it lasted more than two years. This was followed by sectarian violence that turned the resistance focus away from the American occupation forces and took us into a dark tunnel. It seems that events may have been manipulated by US politicians, and Biden might have been one of them.

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The Iraq file has been stressing all US presidents for years. Biden has visited Iraq 27 times and is familiar with the contents of the file as well as Iraqi politicians. As such, he is expected to deal with it differently and very unlike Trump, who many Iraqis preferred for his efforts to reduce Iranian influence in their country. This is despite the fact that during Trump's time in office Iranian interference in Iraq grew so much that the militias it supports controlled most of the country, and Washington did nothing about it, apart from threatening to close the US Embassy in Baghdad, which was a target for missiles fired by the pro-Iran groups.

Biden must understand that today's Iraq is not the Iraq that he called to be divided into three semi-independent regions. It is experiencing one of its worst-ever phases under Iran's near-absolute control through its local agents in the shape of politicians and army officers, as well as through its political parties and militias. America itself is at a defining moment in Iraq, controlling neither territory nor influence and unable to intervene in political decision-making.

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The tremendous economic pressure that Trump exerted on Iran has turned into options for expanding its influence inside Iraq. Tehran has impoverished the Iraqi treasury, with international reports demonstrating that Iran has sustained its economy through Iraq, including selling Iranian oil via its neighbour and obtaining hard currency.

It is likely that Biden will try to reach a new agreement with Iran, which may lead to the US rejoining the 2015 nuclear agreement, albeit conditionally. Such conditions may be the same as those which Trump demanded, but Iran was unwilling to fulfil, delaying its agreement until a new president enters the White House. One of the concessions will be for Iran to reduce its influence in Iraq, not least because the latter is planning elections to be held next June.

Demonstrators carry an image of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a US airstrike in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, during an anti-US rally to protest the killing at Palestine Square in the capital Tehran, Iran on January 4, 2020 [Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency]

Demonstrators carry an image of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a US airstrike in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, during an anti-US rally to protest the killing at Palestine Square in the capital Tehran, Iran on January 4, 2020 [Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency]

A post-Trump America will want to restore its interests in Iraq that were harmed by the Iranian influence, especially after the Quds Force Commander, General Qasem Soleimani, was killed by the US in early January near Baghdad International Airport. US interests were also affected by Trump's habit of making a lot of threats but taking little action; he often expressed his wish to get rid of Iraq because it is a headache for Washington.

Biden may not be very enthusiastic now about his plan to divide Iraq into three regions, because US interests lie in having a united country. Iranian objections to US presence in Iraq may prompt Biden to revive that proposal, though. This would boost the aspirations of some Iraqi politicians who are now speaking openly about federalism along sectarian and ethnic lines. Will Biden expedite such a vision, or does the struggle for influence between Tehran and Washington have another card to play?

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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