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Biden hosts Iraqi leader after Iran’s attack on Israel throws Mideast into greater uncertainty

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden receives Iraqi leader at White House as fears grow of a major escalation of hostilities in the Middle East after The weekend attack in Iran on Israel.

Biden was scheduled to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani on Monday for talks intended to focus primarily on U.S.-Iraqi relations, scheduled well before the Iranian strikes.

But Saturday’s drone and missile launches, some of which flew over Iraqi airspace, underscored the delicate relationship between Washington and Baghdad, particularly because of Iranian proxy groups operating in Iraq.

The sharp increase in regional tensions Israel’s war in Gaza and the weekend’s developments raised new questions about the viability of the U.S. military presence in Iraq for two decades. However, a U.S. Patriot battery in Erbil, Iraq, destroyed at least one Iranian ballistic missile, according to U.S. officials.

Meeting with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Tamim before Biden’s session with al-Sudani, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was urging all parties to avoid any escalation.

“For 36 hours, we have coordinated a diplomatic response to try to prevent an escalation,” he said. “Strength and wisdom must be two sides of the same coin. »

Tamim said the Iraqi government was also concerned.

“The Middle East is currently experiencing exceptional circumstances that are impacting our nations, and we hope that escalations and tensions in the region will cease,” he said.

“The Iraqi government warns against escalation and drawing the region into a broader war that will threaten international security and safety. This is why we call on all parties to exercise restraint and respect the rules of diplomacy and international law,” Tamim said.

To complicate matters, Iranian proxies have launched attacks on U.S. interests throughout the region from Iraq. These ongoing strikes have made discussions between the United States and Iraq on regional stability and future U.S. troop deployments even more crucial.

Monday’s discussions will also focus on economic, trade and energy issues that have become a major priority for the Iraqi government, according to U.S. officials.

The United States and Iraq began formal talks in January on the end of the coalition created to help the Iraqi government fight the Islamic State, with some 2,000 American troops remaining in the country under an agreement with Baghdad. Iraqi officials have periodically called for the withdrawal of these forces.

The two countries have an uneasy relationship in part because of Iran’s considerable influence in Iraq, where a coalition of Iranian-backed groups brought al-Sudani to power in October 2022.

In recent months, the United States has urged Iraq to do more to prevent attacks on American bases in Iraq and Syria, which have further shaken the Middle East following Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7. The weekend’s Iranian attacks on Israel via Iraqi airspace further underscored U.S. concerns, even though al-Sudani had already left Baghdad and was en route to Washington when the drones and missiles were launched.

The United States also has sought to exert financial pressure on Baghdad’s relations with Tehran, limiting Iraq’s access to its own dollars in an effort to stamp out money laundering that would benefit Iran and Syria.

Most former Iraqi prime ministers visited Washington early in their terms. Al-Sudani’s visit was delayed due to tensions between the United States and Iran and regional escalation, including the war in Gaza and the death of three American soldiers in Jordan in an attack by drone at the end of January. That was followed by a U.S. strike that killed a leader of the Kataib Hezbollah militia whom Washington accused of planning and participating in attacks on U.S. troops.

Al-Sudani has tried to maintain a balance between Iran and America, despite being considered close to Tehran and despite several incidents that have put his government in an awkward position compared to Washington.

Early in his term, an American citizen, Stephen Edward Troell, was shot and killed by gunmen who approached him as he stopped on the street where he lived in the central Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad with his family. An Iraqi criminal court convicted five men last August and sentenced them to life in prison in the case, which authorities described as a kidnapping gone wrong.

A few months later, Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli-Russian doctoral student at Princeton, was kidnapped while doing research in Iraq. She is believed to be held by Kataib Hezbollah. The senior US official said Tsurkov’s case would also be raised during al-Sudani’s visit.

Al-Sudani began his term promising to focus on economic development and combat corruption, but his government faced economic difficulties, including a gap between official and market exchange rates between the Iraqi dinar and the American dollar.

The foreign exchange problems stem in part from the tightening of the supply of dollars to Iraq by the United States, as part of the fight against money laundering and smuggling of funds into Iran. The United States has banned more than 20 Iraqi banks from trading in dollars as part of the campaign.

The al-Sudani government recently renewed Iraq’s natural gas purchase contract with Iraq for another five years, which could cause displeasure in the United States.

The Iraqi prime minister will return to Iraq and meet the Turkish president after his trip to Washington, which could finally lead to a solution to a long-running dispute over oil exports from Iraq’s Kurdish regions to Turkey. Washington sought to revive oil supplies.


Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad. Eric Tucker in Washington contributed.

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