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Mideast tensions loom ahead of Biden meeting with Iraqi PM al-Sudani

FILE - Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is pictured in Baghdad, Jan. 9, 2024. U.S. President Joe Biden will host al-Sudani on April 15 as the countries discuss winding down a U.S.-led coalition's mission in Iraq. (Pool via AP)
FILE - Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is pictured in Baghdad, Jan. 9, 2024. U.S. President Joe Biden will host al-Sudani on April 15 as the countries discuss winding down a U.S.-led coalition's mission in Iraq. (Pool via AP)

President Joe Biden is set to welcome Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani on Monday, with the threat of a Gaza war spillover looming in the background. Security officials are on guard against expected Iranian retaliation for an attack on its consulate in Damascus earlier this month.

On Friday, Iran-backed group Hezbollah launched a barrage of rockets and drones from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. While Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged frequent cross-border fire, the timing of the attacks may trigger a significant escalation of the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, another Iran proxy.

Washington has been pressing Baghdad and other partners in the region to urge Iran to show restraint following the killing of seven Iranian military officers in an April 1 strike attributed to Israel. Tehran has made it clear that it will respond.

Biden on Friday warned Iran against any attack, saying the United States is “devoted to the defense of Israel.”

A potential escalation will be front of mind for Biden and al-Sudani, who are keen to prevent Israel’s war from spreading into Syria and Lebanon.

In the earlier months of the Gaza war, Iran-backed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah repeatedly targeted American troops in the region, including in an attack on a U.S. base in Jordan near the border of Iraq and Syria in January that killed three American soldiers and wounded more than 40 others.

Under pressure from Baghdad, shortly after the attack, Kataib Hezbollah announced it was suspending all its military operations against American troops.

The suspension of hostilities from Kataib Hezbollah and other anti-U.S. groups was a condition placed by the U.S. for the Iraqi prime minister’s visit, said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow from the Century Foundation think tank.

Troop withdrawal

A top goal in Washington for al-Sudani is progress toward an agreement on U.S. troop withdrawal from his country before a potential change in U.S. administration after the November election.

There are approximately 2,500 U.S. troops still deployed in Iraq, part of the global coalition formed in 2014 to defeat the Islamic State terror group, mostly focusing on counterterrorism roles.

On Monday, a U.S.-Iraq military committee launched in January met to hash out a troop withdrawal timeline.

Biden administration officials have declined to provide details. However, in a background briefing to reporters Thursday, a State Department official said the U.S. has been “very satisfied” with its partnership with the Iraqi Security Forces and has seen “steady improvements” in their capabilities.

Energy independence

Biden and al-Sudani will also discuss “ongoing Iraqi financial reforms to promote economic development and progress towards Iraq’s energy independence and modernization,” the White House said in a statement announcing the visit.

Washington wants Iraq to wean itself off Iranian energy despite routinely providing sanctions waivers to allow Baghdad to continue importing electricity from Iran.

The State Department official said Iraqi reliance on Iranian electricity has “significantly decreased,” citing an Iraq-Jordan electricity project and ongoing talks for more electricity lines between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Baghdad is also set to ask Washington to ease restrictions on the flow of revenue from Iraq’s oil sales.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the funds have been held in an Iraqi government account at the U.S. Federal Reserve System and distributed upon Baghdad’s request. Since late 2022, Washington has restricted its transfers to prevent money laundering benefiting Iran and Syria.

Baghdad will highlight its efforts on that front, focusing on “reform in the financial system, especially in the bank system,” Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein told VOA in a recent interview.

New phase of strategic partnership

Al-Sudani said he aims for a new phase of strategic partnership that “supports the sovereignty and independence of Iraq without forgoing fruitful cooperation between Baghdad and Washington.”

“Our discussions will emphasize the continued importance of our economic relationship, cooperation on combating money laundering and terrorist financing, and using political and diplomatic tools to defuse regional tensions,” the Iraqi prime minister wrote in a Foreign Affairs article ahead of his visit.

“The fight against terrorism will continue to be a central topic for both of our governments.”

The leaders are also set to discuss cooperation on oil and gas, Hussein said. “We are talking about American companies coming there and helping the Iraqis in these fields, as well as health, agriculture, high education.”

The State Department official confirmed that Biden would also raise the case of journalist Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli-Russian citizen kidnapped in Iraq in 2023 by Kataib Hezbollah.

Jeff Seldin, Herow Zangana and Farhad Pouladi contributed to this report.