The visit follows a set of Iraqi-American officials' meetings, including between al-Abadi and Mike Pence, the US vice-president, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference held on 19-21 February this year and also a surprise visit to Baghdad of the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis on February 21.
What is behind the visit?
As an answer to the question, three main elements are making up the possible goals of the Iraqi leader’s March 20 meeting with President Trump of the US. 1. Demonstrating US good-faith intentions towards Iraq
Just contrary to analyses by some political experts who argue that Syria is a special point of obsession of the Trump’s administration in the West Asian region, the Trump advisors' approaches apparently show that Iraq is the major point of focus of the new White House leadership. Trump and his West Asia advisors argue that the US during time of the former administrations of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama paid a high price on Iraq without making any gains in return.
Trump in a Twitter post in the past said: “USA should take oil from Iraq in repayment for their liberation.” Also he in another comment said: “If we kept the (Iraqi) oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place, so we should have kept the oil, but, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance.”
Trump’s comments raised the hackles of the Iraqi officials. Haider al-Abadi during his weekly press conference on January 24, rushed to express his strong disapproval of any foreign greed for his country’s oil, saying that he could not understand if Trump regretted the 2003 US decline to control the Iraqi oil or he blamed Washington for failure to protect the Iraqi oil facilities against the ISIS terrorist group’s seizure. The Iraqi premier added that the Iraqi oil constitutionally is for the Iraqi people and no foreign party can call for control of this country’s energy reserves.
Trump’s remarks primarily sent wrong signals to the Iraqi officials, making them suspicious of his intentions towards Iraq. The concerns even intensified when Trump in his January 28 first executive order on travel ban under slogan “protecting America from foreign terrorists” put Iraq in the list of the seven predominantly Muslim countries whose citizens were denied US entry for 90 days. Although the ban was suspended in action by a federal judge, Al-Abadi during talks with James Mattis and Mike Pence criticized the Iraq's inclusion in the Trump’s travel ban list.
However, in new Trump travel ban order issued on March 6, Iraq's name was eliminated from the list. This move, the analysts maintain, indicated that the American leader took the advice of his aides who told him to built trust with Iraq. In next step, as part of the trust-building measures, White House invited Iraq’s al-Abadi for official US visit. The whole process makes it clear that Washington wants to expand American influence in Iraq. American leaders have learned well that to this end they should display their good-faith intentions to the Iraqi leaders. This takes the US to appease PM al-Abadi as a tenable and acceptable Iraqi figure for the Americans. 2. Expanding military presence in Iraq in opposition to Iranian influence
Trump administration’s most focused concern which is well underscored by his West Asia advisors, including Walid Phares from Lebanese descent, is the need to confront growing Iran sway in West Asia in general and in Iraq in particular. US political and military leaders believe that after US military withdrawal in 2011, Iraq became a scene for implementation of Iran's regional policies. They also think that especially after rise of ISIS terrorist organization in Iraq in 2014, Iran developed to become a top actor with big sway in Iraq. They see a need to stage some effective policies to deter further Iranian influence while the anti-ISIS battle in Iraq is approaching its final steps.
These ideas are apparently reflected by the American politicians' comments. This issue was also a negotiated topic during meeting of the defense secretary with Iraq’s PM. All in all, Trump and his team of advisors struggle to get the idea across to the Iraqi leaders that Washington strongly opposes Tehran's Iraq influence. Even more, they seek notifying al-Abadi that any continuation of US-Iraq cooperation might come under the condition of the Iraqi consideration of the American worries about the Iranian role and clout in Iraq.
The status of Mosul after liberation from ISIS is also expected to be topic for the American discussion with the Iraqi PM during his anticipated Washington visit. The key expectation of President Trump from the Iraqi leader is green light for further American forces deployment to Iraq. Qayyara air base, also called Qayyara Airfield West in southern Mosul the capital of Nineveh province, is possibly the main military base that will be subject to American bargaining with Iraq’s PM for later US troops dispatch.
Indeed, Americans aim to on the one hand want to give a tangible face to their military presence in Iraq and on the other hand curb further Iranian influence in this country. The experts doubt that the Iran-related American goal in Iraq is achievable, arguing that the Islamic Republic's weight in Iraq is soft and spiritual rather than hard and force-based. 3. Securing US support for Iraq
Having in mind that the war and crisis-hit Iraq is desperately in need of other countries' cooperation and financial aids for reconstruction and recovery from the devastation, seeking US backing, in all financial and technical levels, is one of the drives behind Al-Abadi’s visit to Washington for the post-ISIS period. He knows that Trump strives after Iraq influence and pushing the rivals back in Iraq. This will provide the PM with a bargaining chip to offer to the White House administration in return for Washington’s aids for Iraq’s reconstruction once the terrorist group is obliterated in the country.
Another aim behind the PM’s US trip is linked to Iraq’s domestic political rivalry and battle. He is optimistic to keep post by attracting the US and some regional sides like Saudi Arabia’s support. Al-Abadi's is well aware that not only in Iraq but also inside his Islamic Dawa Party he lacks a stable position and supportive voices. Therefore, he runs a calculated bargaining process with the US in quest for American voice of support for his stay in power.