Iraq’s Sudani Runs the Risks of Sustained Relations with the United States

On his recent visit to the United States, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia` al-Sudani proposed a bold new relationship with America, basing it on the joint Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) of 2008. Sudani is halfway through his term and has only eighteen months to realize his vision for closer US ties, or at least to put it on course. Considering the different pressures facing the prime minister, and Iraq’s economic and security situation, Sudani’s ambitious plans are by no means assured and will likely be challenged from different sectors of the current political environment.

Sudani in Washington

On April 15, Sudani met at the White House with President Joe Biden at the start of a long-awaited seven-day visit to the United States. The trip came against a backdrop of rising regional tensions over the war in Gaza, and, more immediately, the April 13 Iranian attack on Israel, which took place on the very night of Sudani’s arrival in Washington. According to American and Iraqi sources, the prime minister’s visit was a success despite the Biden administration’s preoccupation with the Gaza war and the Iranian attack.

The trip was not without political risk for Sudani. Republican lawmakers called on Biden to cancel the visit, deeming the Iraqi government “under significant Iranian influence.” They were referring to Iran-supported armed militias in Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) who are part of the country’s governing structure and have targeted US positions; the PMU claimed credit for the January 28 attack that killed three American troops at a base in Jordan. For Sudani, the political risks are high: he owes his 2022 appointment to the Shia Coordination Framework (CF), which incorporates some of the very militia groups that Congress has denounced and that have long demanded an end to US presence in Iraq. In February, the United States targeted a PMU command center, killing a prominent leader from Kataib Hezbollah, one of the most hardline militia groups. In addition, the war in Gaza has inflamed Iraqi public opinion, with more Shia voices calling for the immediate withdrawal of American forces from the country and even for the closure of the US embassy in Baghdad. Yet these tensions and crises did not deter Sudani from visiting the United States.

Sudani’s calendar was packed with meetings: at the White House with Biden and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan; and with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, the Deputy Treasury Secretary, and even the Secretary of Homeland Security. He also met with members of Congress, think tanks, the US Chamber of Commerce, and defense and oil companies. In his events and media interviews, Sudani came across as confident, clear-thinking, and in rare command of facts and figures. He was also disciplined: under pressure from tough questioning by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he kept his composure, though some of his responses were evasive and unconvincing.

Republican lawmakers called on Biden to cancel the visit, deeming the Iraqi government “under significant Iranian influence.”

In his appearances, Sudani articulated a vision for a “360-degree” relationship with the US based on the 2008 SFA, which lays out a broad landscape of cooperation in energy, finance, health, the environment, education, and security, among other areas. Also in 2016, Iraq and the United States established a Higher Coordination Committee (HCC), but it was later abandoned, possibly because at that time all attention was devoted to fighting the so-called Islamic State. In the intervening years, the SFA was neglected by both Baghdad and Washington. Ironically, Iraqi militias’ insistent and strident demand for the withdrawal of US forces has given the SFA renewed importance and impetus. In Sudani’s words, the proposed new multi-dimensional partnership with the United States would be “strategic,” “sustainable,” and “enduring, and based on mutual respect and sovereignty.” To revive the SFA, a substantive meeting of the HCC, headed by Secretary Blinken and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Planning Mohammed Tamim, was held during the Washington visit, with mechanisms for follow-up.

Sudani portrayed Iraq as a ripe opportunity for investment by US companies. He understandably stressed the energy sector, traveling to Houston to meet and sign agreements with energy-related corporations. This was doubly important in light of the withdrawal of major US companies from Iraq, particularly ExxonMobil, in recent years. The shrinking footprint of US oil companies has led to the dominance of the Chinese in this sector, creating an imbalance that is a source of concern for Iraqi officials. So eager is Sudani to lure US companies that he promised them preferential treatment, and several more agreements were signed in Washington, including with defense contractors. On the military front, a joint statement with Secretary Austin highlighted the shared commitment to deep security cooperation, including training and purchases of equipment.

Sudani’s Vision as Seen in Baghdad

The ambitious program laid out by Sudani will confront both operational and political realities in Iraq.

Operationally, Iraq still suffers from deep-rooted corruption, an overbearing bureaucracy, fragmented decision-making, a weak financial sector, lingering security risks, and a labor force without the knowledge and skills to meet international standards. Although the Iraqi government is trying to address these obstacles, some—such as corruption—are ingrained in the system, while others, such as professional readiness, cannot be remedied overnight. Such defects are a disincentive to western investment.

More serious are the political challenges. Implementing a far-reaching partnership with the United States requires a national political will that may not exist in Iraq at this time. The Coordination Framework—which includes militia groups under US sanctions—supported the prime minister’s visit to Washington, although it wants a clearer commitment to the withdrawal of American troops. Similarly, the State Administration Coalition (SAC), an umbrella group of Shia, Kurdish, and Sunni parties, endorsed the visit, without highlighting the issue of the US presence. The difference between the positions of the CF and the SAC is predictable. The Kurds have repeatedly and vocally supported strong relations with the United States, including security and military cooperation, as a guarantee of their own security. The Sunnis quietly support strong ties with Washington as a counterbalance to Iranian influence in Iraq. Still, despite these differences, the positions of the two blocs were reassuring to Sudani, and likely contributed to the success of his US visit.

The most serious opposition to Sudani’s vision is likely to come from some Shia militias, specifically the fasail—factions within the PMU—that have been targeting US interests in Iraq and Syria and have claimed responsibility for attacks against Israel. These factions are ideologically committed to Iran and are influenced by its strategic calculations regarding the harm or benefit of a US-Iraqi partnership to the Islamic Republic’s regional interests. If the past is any indicator, it is in Iran’s political and economic interest to maintain uncertainty and unpredictability in Iraq’s security environment, and to pose as the arbiter of peace and stability in the country. Events in the region—most seriously the continuation of the war in Gaza or an open conflict with Hezbollah—will only strengthen the platform of hardliners who are agitating against close Iraq-US relations.

The Sunnis quietly support strong ties with Washington as a counterbalance to Iranian influence in Iraq.

In January 2020, in response to the US assassination of Qassem Sulaimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandess, a majority of Shia parliamentarians adopted a non-binding resolution to expel US forces from Iraq. In February of this year, reacting to the US attack that killed a leader in Kataib Hezbollah, Shia factions in parliament condemned the assassination and sought, but failed, to pass a binding law for the exit of American forces. Kurdish and Sunni MPs boycotted the session or abstained from voting, but so did many Shia MPs from the CF. These attempts indicate both the committed opposition of PMU groups to any engagement with the United States and the political split in attitudes within the CF constellation. In recent months, the Gaza war and the exchange of deadly attacks between Iraqi fasail and US forces have exacerbated the confrontation and given the former a public platform to rally anti-US support. Acknowledging the pressure, in January 2024 the Iraqi and US governments launched the Higher Military Commission (HMC) to identify and evaluate Iraq’s future security needs and tailor international security support to those needs. This, however, is not necessarily a prelude to a scheduled withdrawal of the international, primarily US, military presence in Iraq. Sudani has resisted calls for a timeline for withdrawal but pledged that his government would abide by the findings of the HMC.

The move has not placated hardliners.  On April 20, the day of Sudani’s return from Washington, an MP from the Huqooq bloc, the political arm of Kataib Hezbollah, addressed letters to the prime minister and other ministers demanding accountability for the US visit, specifically concerning withdrawal of coalition forces. Days later, attacks were launched on US forces in Syria and Iraq from a location in Ninawa (Mosul) province. On April 26, a drone attack targeted a gas field in Sulaimani province operated by an Emirati company. The messages were clear: the fasail can target US interests and undermine security in Iraq when and where they wish, in defiance of the Baghdad government.

Other challenges to Sudani’s proposed US partnership are likely to come from his rivals. The CF includes several Shia leaders who, driven by their own ambitions and with an eye toward upcoming parliamentary elections, do not wish Sudani to succeed. After all, he is a junior partner without a party base, selected by the CF to be an instrument of their will rather than an independent actor, and rivals will want to thwart him. Nevertheless, the CF is not homogeneous: it includes pragmatists who support the prime minister’s vision because they hope to benefit from it, those who oppose it on ideological grounds or are motivated by rivalry, and others who are sitting on the fence. In advance of elections, alliances and dividing lines within the CF are forming and reforming around the prime minister. Many Shia parties are already literally invested in the state, enjoying a large share of the economic pie, and believe a partnership with the United States will enlarge their own share in it.

Sudani Shores up His Position

To help shore up his domestic footing, the prime minister, probably with US urging, has made efforts to mend fences with the Kurds, despite problems created by the Iraqi courts regarding Iraqi Kurdistan oil revenues, which the Kurds declare unfair and politically motivated. Both Kurdish parties—the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—have given full approval to Sudani’s Washington visit, and relations between Baghdad and Erbil are better than they have been for months. Sudani has also met with leaders in the fractured and weak Sunni landscape and initiated projects in the Sunni heartland of Anbar. His program of social services is designed for popular appeal. He is thus reaching out for support beyond the CF to other political parties and to Iraqi voters.

Regionally, Sudani has expanded and deepened economic ties with neighbors that were initiated by his predecessors. He has moved forward on economic partnerships with Jordan and Egypt on the one hand and with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the other. Such Arab cooperation encompasses energy, electricity, housing, health, and other sectors. The Development Road proposed by Sudani, which would link Al-Faw Port to ports in Turkey and thence to Europe at an estimated cost of $17 billion, has drawn Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE into a strategic long-term agreement with Iraq. Such commitment to Iraq’s Arab context is anathema to Iran-backed militias, who have vilified Iraq’s Arab and Turkish partners. Nevertheless, the prime minister is busy embedding Iraq into the regional economic fabric in an irreversible way.

The US Role

From the 2008 signing of the SFA and through three presidencies, the United States has regarded Iraq as no more than a security problem, and US policy has been conspicuously focused on security and military needs. But a relationship interpreted so narrowly is neither “sustainable” nor “enduring” and misses the prospect of meaningful economic, social, and technological engagement. Implementing the broad mandate of the SFA is now a necessity, not a luxury, for both countries.

Just as the Iraqi government is now seeking a multi-faceted partnership, the United States government and private sector should embrace this opportunity and take seriously the wider context offered by the SFA. There are undoubtedly bureaucratic, political, and possibly security factors to take into account, and corruption at all levels remains a major problem in Iraq. The United States should consider not only the benefits of implementing the SFA, but also the costs of not implementing it. Such risks include instability in Iraq, the growing strength of hardline groups with regional repercussions, rising Iranian influence, and the likely drift of Iraq away from mainstream regional Arab politics and eastward toward Russia and China.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.