Monday, January 20, 2014

What Direction Are U.S.-Iraq Relations Heading? An Interview With Iraq’s Ambassador to Washington Lukman Faily

Ambassador Lukman Faily is Iraq’s newest representative to the United States. He was born in Baghdad, and then went to college in England, where he received a Master’s Degree and worked in several high-tech companies. Before arriving in Washington he served as Iraq’s ambassador to Japan from 2010 to 2013. Now in the U.S., Ambassador Faily will have to deal with the increasingly complicated ties between the Obama and Maliki administrations. Here is an interview with the ambassador about his thoughts on the relationship between Iraq and U.S. You can follow him on Twitter @FailyLukman.
(Shafaq News)

1. The United States has a Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) with Iraq, but it seems like America is suffering from an Iraq syndrome. That is an aversion to getting involved in the Middle East outside of normal relations. This is especially pressing now because the insurgency is making a comeback in Iraq, and violence is increasing. You’ve met with plenty of administration officials and politicians since you arrived in Washington. Do you think Iraq is still a priority for the U.S.?

Throughout my discussions with administration officials, it has been clear that the United States takes the threat of global terrorism very seriously, particularly in light of the unfolding events in Anbar. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as other radical jihadist groups, have capitalized on the instability and turmoil in Syria, and this is having a direct impact on Iraq’s security.

There is a recognition that Iraq can play a critical role as a source of stability and moderation in the region, and we, as well as our American counterparts, have invested a great deal of blood and treasure to reach that goal.

The SFA provides us with a blueprint to cement our bilateral relations; in addition, it helps us to explore new and creative ways of developing the partnership between our two countries.

2. Iraq has millions of dollars in arms purchases pending with the U.S. through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, such as F-16 fighters, missiles, drones, etc. Many of these weapons systems have been held up for years however. Why do you think it is taking America so long to arm Iraq, and can the process be sped up at all?

One of the main reasons for Prime Minster Al-Maliki’s visit to Washington in October last year was to help expedite the FMS process in order to address the security challenges that Iraq is currently facing. It was clear that key members of Congress had reservations about giving the green light for some of these sales, and it was important for the prime minister both to listen to, and to address their concerns during the visit.

Since then, we have continued our dialogue with Congress, and I would say that there is a common understanding about the urgency of our need for advanced military hardware to fight terrorism, especially given the situation Anbar. The Administration has also indicated publicly their commitment to help expedite this process.

3. One thing that countries do to improve their standing with the U.S. government is hire public relation firms, reach out to think tanks, get Congressional delegations to visit their country, etc. Is Iraq involved any of those types of activities, and if so, could you perhaps provide a few examples?

One of the first things I did was to publicly set out my government’s vision for advancing bilateral relations at the Brookings Institution. Since then, I have spoken at several think tanks, and I often attend these sorts of events in order to get a better feel of the discourse around DC regarding Iraq and the Middle East.

Also, given that bilateral trade between our two countries exceeded $20 billion in 2012, we have an ongoing dialogue with American business executives representing the oil sector, defense, technology and transportation. We are listening to their concerns and working hard to find solutions for obstacles they may face as I continue this outreach across America.

You will have also noticed that as an Embassy, we have embraced social media as a key part of our effort to shed light on what is really going on in Iraq. I myself thoroughly benefit from the interactions I have through Twitter with Americans from all walks of life, and we are encouraged by the positive feedback we get from our followers.

4. Part of the SFA says that Iraq and the U.S. would cooperate on education. Do you know how many Iraqis are attending American universities, and is there any plan to expand that number?

One of our key priorities is to increase exchanges between students and scholars. We have over 800 Iraqi students studying in the U.S., and this number continues to grow each year. In September last year, our two governments partnered to organize a university fair in Baghdad, with representation from 30 American universities. More than 440 Iraqi students and scholars have also been accepted into Fulbright programs since 2004.

The Joint Coordinating Committee for education and culture is expected to convene towards the end of January, and our minister of higher education will lead a delegation to participate in the meeting here in Washington.

5. The United States is one of the top 10 investors in Iraq, but much of that is in the energy field. Do you have any sense that U.S. companies are willing to enter the Iraqi market in other fields and in larger numbers, and do you think they might be deterred by the increasing violence?

I often hear about the challenges that American businesses have in entering the Iraqi market from my regular interactions with them.  Iraq is projected to be among the top ten fastest growing economies this year. We acknowledge that creating a secure environment for companies to do business is essential, but the feedback we receive generally has been very positive. A recent survey by the U.S. Business Dialogue in Iraq revealed that of the 30 American businesses that were surveyed, 75% said they intended to maintain or increase their presence in Iraq. The immediate challenge for us is to address the concerns of the remaining 25%, and I am confident that we can do this.

6. There is a sizeable population of Iraqi expatriates in the United States. Has Baghdad considered reaching out to them to help with developing the country, and also to lobby Washington to keep Iraq a priority?

­­Our doors are always open to the Iraqi expatriate community. This month, we launched a mobile consular service, which involves travelling with my consular staff to a number of locations in the U.S. where there are large Iraqi communities, to deal with their various needs. I also was recently hosted to speak via Skype to an Iraqi youth group in New Orleans, and I hope to replicate this elsewhere. Throughout my interactions with Iraqi communities, I am always astounded by the richness of their skills and professions, and one of my key priorities during my time in the U.S. will be to explore ways of utilizing the enthusiasm and talents of expats for the benefit of Iraq.

7. There are a huge number of Iraqis who served as translators for the American military and government. Many feel threatened and some have lost their lives for this association. Washington has publicly said that it will help these people, but in practice it has been very reluctant to let any of them immigrate to the U.S. What is Baghdad’s stance towards the problems these former translators have had getting out of the country?

Our primary concern is the safety and well-being of all Iraqis. No group of Iraqis should feel threatened in their own country. The skills and experiencesof former translators can be great assets for Iraq, and it is important that we try to address their needs.

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