Biden meets Iraqi PM amid escalating Mideast tensions


US President Joe Biden shakes hands with the Prime Minister of Iraq Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on April 15, 2024. [AFP]

As U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Iraq’s prime minister Monday, all eyes were on Iran, which over the weekend made a historic first strike on Israel.

That attack has inflamed concerns of a wider regional war — a situation that effectively eclipsed the leaders’ already-planned Oval Office meeting, where they wanted to discuss their mutual fight against Islamic State, economic issues and Iraq’s progress toward energy independence and modernization.

“The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the enduring strategic partnership between Iraq and the United States, and discussed their visions for comprehensive bilateral cooperation under the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement,” the two leaders said in a joint statement after Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani met with Biden.

Meanwhile, White House officials disputed reports that Iran delivered a clear warning before the strike. White House national security spokesperson John Kirby called such reports “nonsense.”

“Can you imagine a world in which Iran would pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, we're about to try to schwack Israel with 300 cruise missiles and drones. We just wanted to let you know it's coming. And oh, by the way, here's what we're going to hit.’”

“I'm sorry,” he said. “It just didn't happen.”

He stressed that Israel’s response is “an Israeli decision to make,” and “we’re going to leave it squarely with them.”

Even though the United States is describing Iran's aerial assault as a failure, Iraq’s leader acknowledged that the conflict between Israel and Hamas is of major concern in the region.

“We are actually very eager about stopping this war,  which claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, women and children,” Sudani said, sitting beside Biden in the Oval Office. “And we encourage all the efforts about stopping the expansion of the area of conflict."

The two nations have a delicate relationship after decades of U.S. military involvement in Iraq. U.S. anti-aircraft assets in northern Iraq were used to shoot down some of the Iranian missiles.

Biden said Iraq — a longtime adversary of Iran — has a role to play in maintaining peace.

“Simply put, our partnership is pivotal for our nations, for the Middle East, and I believe, for the world,” he said.

Earlier Monday, Sudani’s deputy met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, where both men hailed the regional cooperation that thwarted the attack and urged de-escalation.

"I think what this weekend demonstrated is that Israel did not have to and does not have to defend itself alone when it is the victim of an aggression, the victim of an attack,” Blinken said.

“In the 36 hours since, we have been coordinating a diplomatic response to seek to prevent escalation.”

“We call on all parties for self-restraint and respect the rules and also international norms that we set,” said Muhammad Ali Tamim, Iraq’s deputy prime minister.

The two leaders announced a raft of bilateral measures Monday, but none directly referenced Iran.

“The President and Prime Minister agreed on the importance of working together to advance regional stability and reinforce and respect Iraqi sovereignty, stability, and security,” their joint statement said.

The other agreements centered on the priorities the Biden administration outlined in March ahead of the visit: energy independence, regional security and the “lasting defeat of ISIS.”

But analysts say Baghdad should seize every diplomatic opportunity to seek peace.

“Iraq needs to make its preference for reduced escalation clear,” Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA on Zoom. “And that's both talking to the Iranians, but also talking to other Arab states and talking to the United States, that this is negative from Iraq's point of view, and that it wants all the powers to take responsible action to try to reduce escalation.”

As Israel mulls its response, regional actors are not sitting still. On Monday, Iraq’s president met with King Abdullah II of Jordan. According to Jordan’s royal court, they spoke about the dangers of this conflict escalating further.