Iraqi prime minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani will make his first official state visit to Washington, D.C. on April 15. The visit, long in the making, comes at a moment when the two countries are renegotiating their relationship. Iraqi factions have attacked U.S. bases on a regular basis, and the fragile ceasefire that holds could be broken at any moment. Sudani and President Joe Biden will discuss the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, as well as other contentious topics, such as the flow of U.S. dollars to Iraq. Century International fellow Sajad Jiyad explains what’s at stake in this visit.

Century International: Why are the Iraqi and U.S. leaders meeting now?

Sajad Jiyad: Sudani has been keen on this meeting for over a year. It was finally scheduled after the White House conditioned it on the major coalition behind the Iraqi government, the Coordination Framework, securing a ceasefire from anti-U.S. groups such as Kata’eb Hezbollah that had targeted U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. Biden is keen on avoiding any uptick in hostilities going into the election and Sudani is trying to secure an agreement on U.S. troop withdrawal before there is a potential change in the White House.

Century: What is the current military relationship between the United States and Iraq? How many U.S. troops are in the country, and what do they do?

Sajad: There are relatively few American troops in Iraq at this point. There are around 2,500 in the country on an advise-and-assist mission aimed at countering the Islamic State. However, the United States has plenty of assets in Iraq and neighboring countries that it has used to target Iraqi armed factions allied with Iran. This is the most contentious part of the relationship—that the United States acts without permission in Iraq, even when it is responding to attacks against U.S. forces. Iraq mainly uses U.S.-made weaponry, so it needs access to parts and support, without which things like F-16 fighter jets will become nonoperational.

Century: How much does the United States spend on Iraq?

Sajad: The latest defense budget request for Iraq is $500 million for 2025. But when you add the budget of the State Department, aid activities, and indirect contributions through the UN and other international organizations, I would guess the true total annual amount spent by the United States in or on Iraq is more than $1 billion a year.

Century: What’s the timeline of negotiations over the terms of a continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq?

Sajad: Nothing has been announced yet and recent comments by the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad that troop withdrawal is “going to take some time” and needs to be done in “an orderly fashion” suggest that the negotiations will continue for a while. It is unlikely that Biden will want to announce a withdrawal date, and he doesn’t want it to look like he’s being forced out of Iraq. But if Biden wins the election, it’s conceivable that he might stage a winding down of the U.S. military mission in Iraq over two years.

Century: What does Biden want from Sudani?

Sajad: Overall, Biden does not want Iraq to be a headache for him heading into November, and thinks Sudani might be able to help with that. Specifically, Biden wants a guarantee that the Iraqi government will prevent attacks by Iraqi armed groups against U.S. troops and facilities inside Iraq and perhaps Syria. (Iraq-based groups have been known to stage attacks on Syrian territory.) This guarantee is the priority. All the other issues are secondary—things like cutting Iran off from accessing dollars in Iraq and encouraging better ties between Baghdad and Erbil to prevent the breakup of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Biden wants a guarantee that the Iraqi government will prevent attacks by Iraqi armed groups against U.S. troops and facilities.

Century: How is Iraq responding to U.S. pressure on dollar flows?

All of the revenue from Iraq’s oil sales, which amounts to more than $100 billion a year, is held in an Iraqi government account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Iraqi Central Bank then transfers the dollars the government needs, some in cash, to Baghdad for distribution by the Ministry of Finance. The U.S. government has restricted these transfers in the last eighteen months because it says the Iraqi financial system is too open to money laundering and illicit flows of dollars to Iran, other countries, and sanctioned individuals and entities. The Iraqi government has responded by suspending the licenses of some banks, pushing for documentation and auditing of dollar transactions, reducing cash transactions, and limiting the amount of dollars that banks make available for withdrawals.

Century: What does Sudani want from Biden?

Sajad: Sudani wants two things, in particular. The first is an indication of when troop withdrawal could begin and some announcement that heralds an end to the U.S. military mission in Iraq. The U.S. troop presence is a domestic political liability for Sudani, and he needs to show that he has made progress, through negotiations, toward preventing Iraqi armed groups from attacking U.S. interests in Iraq. Second, Sudani wants to avoid any further U.S. action in Iraq—whether that is sanctions against Iraqi leaders and officials, pressure on Iraqi banks and financial activity, or airstrikes against armed groups without the Iraqi government’s permission. Sudani also has a wish list that includes more American investment in Iraq and deals on weapons sales, but it is unlikely that will make it onto the agenda this time around.

Century: Is either leader strong enough, domestically, to negotiate a military alliance?

Sajad: Perhaps, but there are doubts about whether it could be a lasting alliance. Biden has to run for reelection in November, and Sudani is facing reelections at some point next year. Who is to say they will be in power to ensure an alliance actually lasts? That is the cloud under which this meeting is happening—the uncertainty of which direction both governments will be taking over the next eighteen months.

Century: What security interests do Iraq and the United States share?

Sajad: Iraq is essentially dependent on the United States for weapons maintenance and logistics, intelligence sharing, and access to dollars for its economy. It needs to maintain a positive relationship with the United States for its own security.

The United States’ needs aren’t as pressing, but Washington wants to prevent further empowering Iran in Iraq. Keeping American troops in Iraq is considered a form of deterrence. Without American troops there, Washington worries that Iraq could either experience a security vacuum—leading to the rise of an insurgency that spills into the region—or that Baghdad could become more hard-line and more closely aligned with Iran, thereby threatening U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Century: What are the biggest obstacles to the U.S.–Iraqi relationship?

Sajad: The biggest issue is a circular problem of the Iraqi government not being able to prevent attacks against U.S. facilities, and the United States undertaking military action on Iraqi soil in violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. American troop presence will be a point of contention until it is resolved. The current situation is untenable, and Washington understands this. It is trying to find a solution on its own terms and timing.

Century: Any particular political risks to this meeting?

Sajad: The most obvious risk is that, in the lead-up to the meeting, there could be some sort of attack on U.S. troops and facilities inside Iraq and a potential American retaliation. An attack might force a postponement of the state visit—or, more likely, a cancellation.

If Sudani comes back from the meeting without any progress to show on troop withdrawal, it will give his critics in Iraq more incentive to remove him or prevent him from taking a second term in office. It would also lead to more attacks by armed groups against the United States. And if Sudani fails to keep the peace in Iraq there could be military actions that go further than before and seriously damage the bilateral relationship.

For Biden, any sort of concession to the Iraqis could cause a negative reaction in Congress, which could prevent him from following through.

Century: How does the Gaza war affect the Sudani–Biden relationship?

Sajad: The Gaza war adds more risk. Sudani wants the United States to distance itself from Israeli actions and stop providing support to Israel, which would make the United States less of a target in Iraq and Syria. Biden would undoubtedly prefer to focus on how to improve the bilateral relationship between Baghdad and Washington. And Biden doesn’t want Iraq to get drawn into other conflicts, least of all Israel’s war. But a major escalation in the Gaza war, and especially its spread into Lebanon and Syria, would bring tremendous risk to Iraq, and it might not be in the hands of either leader to prevent further conflict.

Header Image: U.S. secretary of state Antony J. Blinken meets with Iraqi prime minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in Munich, Germany, on February 18, 2023. Source: Ron Przysucha via U.S. State Department