Biden to host Iraqi leader as tensions in Middle East soar

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President Joe Biden is set to host Iraq’s leader this week for talks that come as tensions across the Middle East have soared over the war in Gaza and Iran’s weekend attack on Israel in retaliation for an Israeli military strike against the Iranian consulate in Syria.

The sharp rise in security fears has raised further questions about the viability of the two-decade American military presence in Iraq, through which portions of Iran’s Saturday drone and missile attack on Israel flew or were launched from. A US Patriot battery in Irbil, Iraq, knocked down at least one Iranian ballistic missile, according to American officials.

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In addition, Iranian proxies have initiated attacks against US interests throughout the region from inside Iraq, making Monday’s meeting between Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani all the more critical. The talks will include a discussion of regional stability and future US troop deployments but will also focus on economic, trade and energy issues that have become a major priority for Iraq’s government, according to US officials.

Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are both expected to address the US troop presence in meetings with al-Sudani.

“It is not the primary focus of the visit … but it is almost certainly going to come up,” one senior US official said last week.

The US and Iraq began formal talks in January about ending the coalition created to help the Iraqi government fight ISIS, with some 2,000 US troops remaining in the country under an agreement with Baghdad. Iraqi officials have periodically called for a withdrawal of those forces.

The two countries have a delicate relationship due in part to Iran’s considerable sway in Iraq, where a coalition of Iran-backed groups brought al-Sudani to power in October 2022.

The US in recent months has urged Iraq to do more to prevent attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria that have further roiled the Middle East in the aftermath of Israel’s war on Gaza.

Iran’s weekend attacks on Israel through Iraqi airspace have further underscored US concerns, although al-Sudani had already left Baghdad and was en route to Washington when the drones and missiles were launched.

The US has also sought to apply financial pressure over Baghdad’s relationship with Tehran, restricting Iraq’s access to its own dollars in an effort to stamp out money laundering said to benefit Iran and Syria.

Most previous Iraqi prime ministers have visited Washington earlier in their tenure. Al-Sudani’s visit was delayed because of tensions between the US and Iran and regional escalation, including the Gaza war and the killing of three US soldiers in Jordan in a drone attack in late January. That was followed by a US strike that killed a leader in the Kataib Hezbollah militia whom Washington accused of planning and participating in attacks on US troops.

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