President Donald Trump welcomed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi to the White House on Monday to talk about the fight against the Islamic State and to smooth over any lingering hurt feelings about the administration’s original decision to include Iraq in its travel ban.
With Iraq pressing its military offensive to retake Mosul, its second largest city, from the Islamic State, the visit comes at a critical time, with some predicting Iraqi forces may be able to proclaim that the country has rid itself of the terrorist group by the end of the year.
“We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq,” said Kenneth Pollack, senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.
Trump made defeating ISIS and eliminating “radical Islamic terrorism” a major part of his campaign.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the two governments remained committed to working together to help Iraq reach stability.
“The Iraqi people have been a brave and steadfast partner in our shared fight against ISIS, al Qaida and radicalism,” Spicer said. “The president will speak with the prime minister about how that partnership will help defeat ISIS and move into a new era in which Iraq is a force for stability and peace and a prosperous Middle East.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accompanied Trump as he met with Abadi.
We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq.
Kenneth Pollack, Brookings Institution
U.S.-Iraqi relations were strained in late January when Trump issued his first travel ban, including Iraq among the seven countries whose citizens were forbidden temporarily from traveling to the United States, allegedly until new vetting procedures could be implemented. The other countries were Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
While it was cast as intended to make the country safer, some experts argued the move was likely to weaken U.S. counterterrorism defenses, noting that about 5,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq and hundreds embedded with Iraqi forces in and around Mosul. The U.S. military has also relied on thousands of Iraqi contractors to support its efforts.
“If we wanted cooperation from the Iraqis in Mosul in chasing ISIS, it was almost necessary to extract the Iraqis from the executive order,” Gordon Adams, an American University professor of U.S. foreign policy who specializes in national security policy.
The Iraqi government lobbied hard to be removed from the list. Abadi spoke with Trump by phone on Feb. 10 and met with Pence in Munich on Feb. 18.
Some veterans were alarmed that the order would affect the admission of Iraqi interpreters who had worked closely with the Americans during the Iraq War.
The administration reissued the executive order earlier this month, dropping Iraq from the list after leaders agreed to more vetting conditions.
While the Iraqi government may have been hurt by the decision to be included in the ban, Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Stretgic and International Studies, said he doubted the travel ban would be a major topic of conversation during Abadi’s visit.
“Everybody in the world is trying to get to Washington to see the president,” Alterman said. “You don’t need a reason. The reason is it’s a new president and people want to get on the president’s agenda. They want to convince the president that they’re important.”