Opposing Al-Sudani visit

Conservative House caucus members criticize Biden’s Iraq policy

WASHINGTON — Members of the congressional conservative caucus have openly criticized President Joe Biden’s decision to host Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani, indicating sharp disapproval of the administration’s Iraq policy amidst escalating Iranian influence in the region.

In a letter sent to the White House on April 15, the committee expressed “deep concern” regarding Biden’s decision to host Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani in the White House and his “overall Iraqi policy.”

The caucus, officially known as the Republican Study Committee, is a right wing bloc within the U.S. House of Representatives, known for its influence on policy discussions related to fiscal conservatism and national security. The letter to President Biden was co-signed by Joe Wilson and Kevin Hern, high ranking members of the RSC, who have expressed concerns about current U.S. policies towards Iraq.

The letter raises several concerns regarding U.S. policy in Iraq, particularly highlighting the treatment of the Kurdistan Region. It accuses the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Al-Sudani, of blocking funds and military support to the Kurdistan Regional Government, which they describe as the U.S.’s best partner in Iraq.

Specifically, the letter criticizes the Iraqi federal budget’s allocation, claiming it denies the KRG its constitutionally guaranteed budget share. This financial blockade, they say, extends to congressionally appropriated equipment for the Peshmerga, the military forces of Kurdistan.

The letter also laments the Iraqi government’s ‘blocking’ of oil exports from Kurdistan. These actions are portrayed as part of a broader pattern of governance that favors Iranian interests over those of the U.S. and its allies, notably the Kurds in Iraq.

A long-standing dispute between Iraq and Turkey over KRG’s independent oil sales culminated in an arbitration decision by the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce that sided with Iraq. Exports from the Kurdistan Region have been halted ever since the verdict early last year, with the key sticking point being the lack of agreement between the KRG and Baghdad over the figures earmarked by the federal government for Kurdistan-based oil companies and the costs incurred in producing the oil.

The conflict stems from KRG’s decision to export oil independently of the Iraqi central government starting in 2013, which Baghdad deemed illegal. This dispute significantly impacts the Kurdish region’s economic and political autonomy, especially following the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling that the KRG’s oil and gas law authorizing its independent oil transactions was ‘unconstitutional.’ The court’s ruling has led to increased financial and legal pressures on the KRG, impacting its ability to pay public sector salaries and maintain financial stability.

In the run-up to his Washington trip, Al-Sudani’s government released February and March salaries to the KRG. However, in accordance with a ruling from the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court in February, Baghdad has stipulated that for salary payments to persist, the KRG must acquiesce to a federally-administered salary domiciliation program. This program would bypass KRG’s authority and entrust banks affiliated with the federal government with the distribution of salaries to Kurdistan’s 1.3 million civil servants, retirees, and social welfare recipients. The KRG opposes this plan, calling it a breach of constitutional authority.

Despite the pressure from the U.S., it remains to be seen if Al-Sudani’s government will continue salary payments to the KRG and whether it will reach a middle ground with the KRG on the salary domiciliation plans.

Additionally, the letter requests urgent clarification from U.S. departments on measures being taken to ensure the KRG receives its ‘rightful support’ and how the U.S. plans to counteract Iraqi policies that may undermine regional stability and U.S. strategic interests. Yesterday, a joint statement by Biden and Al-Sudani underscored “their shared view that the Iraqi Kurdistan Region is integral to Iraq’s overall prosperity and stability.”

The committee members detailed their apprehensions regarding the integration of U.S.-designated groups within the Iraqi government: “Iraq is now solidly in Iran’s hands. This is evident across Iraq’s institutions and within Prime Minster [sic] Sudani’s own government, which includes two US-designated terrorist groups,” the letter stated. They highlighted the involvement of Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Sudani’s administration, groups noted for their aggressive actions against U.S. interests, including recent attacks.

The letter also criticized financial ties, pointing out, “Iraqi PM Sudani leads an Iraqi government which funds Iran-backed militias to the tune of at least $2.7 billion annually.” It further detailed how these funds are reportedly used to support activities contrary to U.S. interests, including attacks on American personnel.

Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are significant Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, both designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. These groups have been involved in various confrontations with U.S. forces. Kata’ib Hezbollah and associated groups, in particular, have been responsible for nearly 200 attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria since the breakout of hostilities between Israel and Hamas last October. In February, the U.S. conducted strikes on two senior Kata’ib Hezbollah figures in Baghdad, which amplified pressure on Al-Sudani by pro-Iran political figures in Iraq to eject U.S. forces from the country. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Iraq was one of the four countries from which Iran attacked Israel with hundreds of drones and missiles on April 14, likely in conjunction with its allied militias.

Addressing concerns about U.S. financial involvement, the letter posed pointed questions about the oversight of funds transferred to Iraq: “Can the Secretary of Treasury certify that no US dollar transfers to Iraq’s Central Bank are being used to directly or indirectly fund the Iranian Regime or its proxies in Iraq?” The U.S. Treasury Department has taken action against several Iraqi banks and entities over allegations of funneling funds to Iran and its proxies. In 2023, 14 banks were barred by Iraq from conducting dollar transactions following a visit by U.S. Treasury officials.

The lawmakers also questioned the integrity of Iraq’s oil industry and its susceptibility to Iranian influence: “The Minister of Oil oversees the second largest OPEC producer, but for an industry that is now largely also controlled by these militias who control much of Iraq’s internal distribution and which facilitate oil sanctions evasion with Iran.”

The letter concluded with a request for stringent measures to ensure that U.S. dealings with Iraq do not inadvertently support Iranian-aligned activities against U.S. interests.

Al-Sudani was appointed as Iraq’s Prime Minister with significant backing from the Shia Coordination Framework, a coalition of Shia political groups, many of whom have close ties to Iran. This coalition holds considerable sway in Iraqi politics, especially after Muqtada Al-Sadr’s bloc, a major rival faction, withdrew from parliamentary participation.

Al-Sudani’s lack of pre-existing political constituency has rendered his administration’s hands tied on many issues since entering office. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq leader Qais Al-Khazali called Al-Sudani a ‘general manager’ upon him being designated PM.

However, Al-Sudani has sought to demonstrate some autonomy, with reports that he might run on an independent ticket in Iraq’s next parliamentary elections slated due in 2025.