US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller (Photo Credit: Facebook/US Embassy Baghdad/Screenshot)
SULAIMANI — US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller on Tuesday (August 10) outlined a vision of enduring partnership between the US and Iraq, saying that his country’s support for Iraq and its people will continue for “the long haul.”
During a wide-ranging discussion with journalists from media outlets in the Kurdistan Region, Tueller emphasized that Washington wanted to see an Iraqi state that can effectively wield and protect its sovereignty against a variety of meddlesome and malign actors.
“We believe that most Iraqis want to see a strong Iraqi state because what they want to see is a government that’s able to provide security [and] jobs,” he said.
“Ultimately, the antidote to just about every problem that you’re going to raise with me, I’m going to say, is a strong, normal Iraqi state,” he added.
For the veteran diplomat, that included a “strong, stable, autonomous Kurdish region within a strong, stable Iraqi federal state.”
SUPPORTING OR UNDERMINING IRAQI INTERESTS
Tueller contrasted this approach with that of other actors, who he argued were working to undermine Iraqi interests, including both states, like Iran and Turkey, and non-state groups, like elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Islamic State (ISIS), and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
He said that US President Joe Biden hopes to engage with Iran using diplomatic means and did not want to see Washington’s tensions with Tehran play out in Iraq, but was ready use force in self-defense, noting that the new president had already authorized two strikes against Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria.
“What we have a problem with is when there are voices that call for things that we think are actually calling on behalf of, frankly, an Iranian agenda and Iranian interest or any other outside party, rather than an Iraqi interest,” Tueller said.
“Who actually speaks for the Iraqi state? Is it the prime minister…or is it the self-appointed head of a shadowy group that gives himself a very sexy-sounding name?,” he added, referring in context to elements of the PMF and their leadership.
“I don’t think Iraqis want to see a militia state.”
Pointing to the biggest outcome of the latest round of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, Tueller said that the US military would shift fully away from a combat role in Iraq, but in a way “that would not allow an opportunity for ISIS to resurge.”
He said that US troops and those from other members of the International Coalition were present in Iraq at the express request of the Iraqi government and “would have to” leave should Baghdad retract that authorization.
If the federal government made that decision, foreign troops would have to withdraw from the Kurdistan Region as well, he said.
Asked about reports in foreign media outlets, he said that there were “no plans at the moment” to change the US presence at the Bashur base, located near Harir in Erbil governorate, but acknowledged that might change in the future.
Tueller also said that he believed that early Iraqi parliamentary elections will take place as scheduled on October 10, despite a threatened boycott by Shia cleric and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement.
“Anything’s possible, but I think that there seems to be a lot of momentum towards holding the election. Then, the question is: will the election be conducted in a manner that restores the trust of the Iraqi people in the electoral process,” he said.
TURKEY AND THE PKK
The ambassador also addressed the ongoing Turkish military intervention in the Kurdistan Region and northern Iraq, which Ankara says is necessary to combat the PKK.
Noting the US designation of the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization, Tueller said that the group “often is clashing with the Peshmergaor engaging in activities that are creating instability, causing villagers and others to vacate, and also has invited in the military presence of Turkey, without the concurrence of the Iraqi government.”
One place of particular concern he identified was Sinjar, where he said the PKK “in some senses has become an ally with and we see an intertwining…with some of the armed, non-state, Shia militias.”
He urged both the PKK and the PMF to withdraw fully from Sinjar so that the October 2020 agreement between Erbil and Baghdad can be implemented.
But Tueller also criticized Turkish violations of Iraqi sovereignty, saying that Washington was “deeply concerned…because what that does is it further weakens the Iraqi forces and challenges the Iraqi state.”
POLITICAL DIALOGUE IN THE KURDISTAN REGION
Turning to political dynamics within the Kurdistan Region, Tueller steered clear of directly addressing the ongoing power struggle roiling the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), but said “it’s very easy to exploit gaps and differences and what you see in Iraq is often [that] those adversaries, enemies of Iraq are actually able to come in and take advantage when there are such divisions.”
Overall, the US message is to “find ways to resolve these differences through political dialogue, through talking with each other,” he said.
“Certainly, any attempt to try to resort to violence would exacerbate the lack of trust and the elements of politics here that make it so hard to try to find a more positive way to deal with Iraq’s problems,” he added.
Asked about his view of the state of freedom of the press and expression in the Kurdistan Region, the ambassador said that “there isn’t a meeting that I have with any senior government or party official here” where he and US Consul-General in Erbil Robert Palladino do not raise the issue.
“We’ve expressed concerns that we see some indications that there is some backsliding…and we think that’s very dangerous. We think that that’s something that the Kurdish people themselves feel concerned about,” Tueller said.
Overall, however, he thought that the authorities in the Kurdistan Region “had a deep commitment” to maintaining freedom of the press, but that adherence and implementation of that principle were lacking.
(NRT Digital Media)