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Exclusive: Iraq president reveals Trump fears; warns of war, ethnic cleansing

Iraqi President Barham Salih smiles as he gives an interview
Photo: "Axios on HBO"

Iraqi President Barham Salih — long known as a pro-American leader — says he is no longer sure he can rely on the U.S. as an ally and may be ready to "recalibrate" Iraq's relationship with other countries, including Iran and Russia.

Why it matters: In an extraordinarily candid interview with "Axios on HBO," Salih said he still values his country's alliance with the U.S. 16 years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He wants to keep that alliance — but made clear that the Trump administration's policies are making that difficult.

  • "The staying power of the United States is being questioned in a very, very serious way," Salih said. "And allies of the United States are worried about the dependability of the United States."

The big picture: The interview was conducted last Monday — six days before Trump announced the successful U.S. operation that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

  • The death of Baghdadi — which relied on America's military and intelligence assets in Syria and Iraq — reinforces why U.S. allies like Salih worry what would happen if Trump completes his promise to withdraw the U.S. military from the Middle East.

Several times in the interview, Salih used the words "recalibrate" or "rethinking" to describe how Iraq must approach its relationship with the United States — noting at one point that "dependability is important" in allies.

  • When asked if a U.S. drawdown from the Middle East could lead to a recalibration toward Russia and Iran, Salih wouldn't rule that out.
  • "Of course, many actors in this neighborhood," Salih said. "I'm not one of those, again, who goes and [says] to the Americans or the Russians, 'if you are not doing this for me, I'm gonna go the other way round.' [But] we need to think of our own priorities, and I've been very clear about it."

The nearly hour-long interview — in one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces, mostly unchanged since the days when he ruled Iraq — showed clearly how Salih feels as a leader who has relied on the U.S. as an ally for decades.

Among his biggest concerns: the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, leaving the Kurds to fend for themselves and increasing the danger of a resurgence of ISIS.

  • Keep in mind: Salih is one of the most influential Kurdish figures in the world — he's the former leader of Iraqi Kurdistan. And he chooses his words carefully. So the threat of ethnic cleansing by Turkish troops in Syria is hitting him especially hard.
  • "I'm worried about ethnic cleansing. And this has been the history, tragic history of the Kurdish people and this [is] dangerous and tragic. The humanitarian cost is just awful."
  • Salih also said he was "worried" about war breaking out between the U.S. and Iran — and Iraq can't afford to pick sides in such a war.

Between the lines: Salih seemed most concerned about Trump's general desire to disengage from the Middle East and bring U.S. troops home.

  • "We live in an interconnected world," Salih said. "What happened in Iraq impacted your security and vice versa. Your policies impact the Middle East, too."

What's next? One of the biggest consequences of the Syria withdrawal, he said, could be the re-emergence of ISIS — "a revival of these extremist groups" that would be "basically fueling another cycle of this conflict."

  • "We have had serious conversations about this with senior American officials. And I've been very clear. I don't mince my words," Salih said. "The military defeat of ISIS is an important victory, but not incomplete [sic] and precarious too as well. It can easily unravel. And this is what I'm worried about."
  • "Five years of blood, treasure, effort — a lot of human misery went into defeating ISIS," he said. "This victory was [not] easy, and for anyone to become complacent about it is terrible, reckless, dangerous, tragic."

On war between the U.S. and Iran

Salih says he's "worried" about a war breaking out between the United States and Iran — and that this war would spell "disaster for everybody."

Driving the news: Salih is stuck between the U.S. and Iran, as he considers both countries to be Iraq's allies. When it was put to Salih that he might have to pick a side if war breaks out, Salih said Iraq couldn't afford to choose between the U.S. and Iran.

  • The reality, he said, is that it's not in Iraq's interests to harm its powerful neighbor. (The subtext: Iraq doesn't want a repeat of the devastating Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.)
  • "Iran is a neighbor of ours. We have 1,400 kilometers [870 miles] of borders with Iran. And we cannot wish Iran ill. It's not in our interests," Salih said.
  • "The United States is an important ally, partner. … We want this to continue and we definitely don't want our territory to be used," he said. "We should try and stop it because Iraq cannot sustain it, cannot survive it."

Why it matters: If the U.S. goes to war with Iran, some analysts believe that Iraq would be the first battlefield. The U.S. has more than 5,000 troops stationed in Iraq. Iran, using the militias it controls inside Iraq, could attack the U.S. forces as these militias have done in the past.

  • These are not academic questions. Salih acknowledged that if Trump hadn't changed his mind at the last minute in June — Trump says he reversed his decision to strike Iran with only 10 minutes to spare — a U.S.-Iran conflict could have spiraled out of control.