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Ban Could Hurt U.S.-Iraqi Ties, Diplomats Say

29 Jan 2017 6:05 pm
By Tamer El-Ghobashy in Baghdad and Maria Abi-Habib in Beirut 

President Donald Trump's inclusion of Iraq in the temporary ban on foreign nationals entering the U.S. has alarmed American diplomats who warn it risks upending delicate military, political and business ties at a time when Islamic State is on the cusp of defeat in the country.

The backlash over the executive order intensified on Sunday with Iraqi lawmakers calling on their own government to retaliate by banning U.S. citizens from entering Iraq. Influential Iran-backed Shiite militias, which are helping fight the Sunni extremists of Islamic State, went one step further by urging that Americans in the country now be expelled.

A memo sent by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to the State Department and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal showed that diplomats appeared blindsided by the order issued on Friday and its breadth. They said it would be felt disproportionately in Iraq and urgently warned that it could have do lasting harm to bilateral relations in the one nation on the list that the U.S. considers a close ally.

The memo, dated Saturday, detailed a list of potential repercussions that could arise from Mr. Trump's order. For example, it said, a top Iraqi general leading the fight against Islamic State would be unable to visit family in the U.S.

American-led airstrikes have been supporting an array of allied Iraqi forces in a critical battle to drive Islamic State out of the major city of Mosul. U.S. troops are closely advising Iraqi forces on the ground.

Also, General Electric Co. will not being able to host Iraqi delegates in the U.S. as part of a recently expanded $2 billion energy deal, the memo said. General Electric didn't immediately comment.

The memo also flagged the fate of some 62,000 Iraqi applicants for a special relocation program for aiding the U.S.; the perception that the U.S. is abandoning vulnerable minorities; and the safety and mobility of thousands of American diplomatic staff and private contractors in the country.

"The impact of the Executive Order will be felt disproportionately here, especially if the [Iraqi government] decides to take reciprocal action and ban U.S. passport holders who are not eligible for diplomatic visas from traveling," the memo says, noting Iraq is the only country out of the seven singled out by Mr. Trump where the U.S. has full diplomatic presence. The other countries whose citizens are banned for at least 90 days from entering the U.S. are Iran, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan.

A U.S. official declined to comment on the internal communication, saying the embassy in Baghdad is in frequent contact with the White House on many issues.

For many Iraqis, the banning of their citizens, particularly refugees, represented a blow to national pride and damaged their perception of Mr. Trump, whose pointed rhetoric against Islamic State had initially raised hopes of increased cooperation between the two nations.

Mainstream Iraqi lawmakers on Sunday urged Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government to take immediate action to block American citizens from entering Iraq, saying they had been deceived by the new American president and insulted that their military contributions to the defeat of Islamic State had been ignored.

Some insisted that Mr. Trump reverse the order, further angered by revelations on Saturday that the ban would include Iraqis who hold passports from any other nations including Europe and Canada.

"We demand Trump's administration to back down on this decision and we do consider it a bad start for the new American presidency, which should have thanked Iraqis for the sacrifices they made in their war against terrorism and behalf of the whole world," said the largest Shiite parliamentary bloc, Al Mowaten.

Iraqis have waged a tough fight over the past 2 1/2 years, all the while backed by U.S. air power and advisers, to drive Islamic State out of their country. This latest conflict erupted only a few years after a decadelong U.S.-led war to drive Saddam Hussein out of power and then put down a subsequent insurgency by Sunni extremists.

The Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias that have played a significant role in beating back Islamic State and enjoy widespread political support, called for the expulsion of Americans in Iraq. If Iraq were to heed the call, it would complicate the continuing military alliance between the U.S.-led coalition and Iraq's security forces in the fight for Mosul.

Many of the most powerful Shiite militias are backed by Iran and American officials have long worried any void left by the U.S. would be filled by Iraq's neighbor.

A spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, Ahmed al-Assadi, said Mr. Trump's ban on Iraqis was an affront "to the dignity of Iraqis who have suffered thousands of martyrs fighting terrorism on the behalf of the world."

Mr. Abadi, who has kept Iraq's complex sectarian political and social tensions mostly under control since taking office in 2014 and has expressed optimism over Mr. Trump's presidency, didn't comment on the Iraqi responses on Sunday.

Mr. Abadi's term has also been marked by an increase in unprecedented cooperation with the U.S. government and companies through a tumultuous period dominated by the fight against Islamic State.

On Thursday, Mr. Abadi celebrated the signing of a $1 billion deal with General Electric to add 1.5 gigawatts of electricity to Iraq's power grid -- one of the few non-oil foreign investments in the country. The Embassy memo expressed deep concern that the deal and others by American companies would be compromised by Mr. Trump's order.

The inability of an Iraqi delegation to travel to the U.S. "could have implications for GE's program in Iraq since only one of the Iraqi participants would likely be eligible for a diplomatic visa," the memo says.

Diplomatic functions could also be heavily impacted should Americans be restricted because contractors make up a significant number of security and support roles for U.S. diplomatic facilities, the memo notes. It also says Department of Defense contractors involved in the fight against Islamic State could be barred if Iraq's government reciprocates.

The timing and inclusion of Iraq in Mr. Trump's order has put America's military, which is closely coordinating with Iraq's security forces in the fight for Mosul, in the awkward position of having to justify a political decision out of Washington that seems significantly out of step with the close cooperation on the battlefield.

Commanders who are leading the offensive on Mosul have asked why Iraq has been singled out even though it has partnered with the U.S. while "Saudi Arabia and other states perceived as terrorism exporters were not, " the diplomatic memo said.

One of the top generals in the fight had been planning a trip to the U.S. in early February to see family but "now appears to be stuck in Iraq," the memo says. The general had been living in the U.S. under a sanctuary visa since last year after he received multiple death threats for his military service. But Mr. Abadi asked him to return to Iraq to help lead the fight against Islamic State, according to the memo.

"His work alongside the U.S.-led coalition and U.S. Special Operations Forces in the fight against ISIS has contributed in a major way toward the accomplishment of vital U.S. national interests," the memo says.

--Ghassan Adnan contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 29, 2017 13:05 ET (18:05 GMT)

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