World

Fiame Naomi Mata’afa finally takes office in Samoa. Tunisia’s prime minister ousted after mass protests. Cardinal charged over London property deals. By Jonathan Pearlman.

US troops change role in Iraq as Biden focuses on Asia

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi meets US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House this week.
Credit: Iraqi Prime Ministry Press Office / Handout / Anadolu Agency

Great power rivalry

Iraq: Joe Biden is ending America’s combat mission in Iraq, 18 years after the United States-led invasion. On Monday, the US president met with the Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, in the White House to confirm the changing role of US troops, as well as to discuss American support for Iraq’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout and its elections in October.

But most of the 2500 US troops will not be leaving. Instead, they will be given an advisory and training role and will remain in Iraq to prevent a resurgence of Daesh or other radical groups.

Al-Kadhimi said Iraqi troops were capable of operating against domestic threats without US support but need assistance with training and intelligence.

Since the invasion in 2003, more than 185,000 civilians and 4700 US and allied troops have died. The US previously scaled back its deployment before conducting troop surges in 2007 and 2014 to try to quash, respectively, insurgent violence and the seizure of territory by Daesh.

In recent months, US troops in Iraq and Syria have been targeted by drone attacks believed to have been conducted by Iran-backed militias. Iraq has largely supported American action against the militias but was critical of US air strikes last month against sites linked to the drone attacks.

Daesh no longer occupies Iraqi territory but retains a presence. Last week, it claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in a Baghdad market that killed more than 35 people.

The reduced American role in Iraq comes as Biden shifts his administration’s focus from the Middle East towards Asia, particularly China.

Biden has also begun withdrawing the remaining 2500 US troops from Afghanistan. As US forces have left, the Taliban has escalated its offensive against Afghan forces and now holds about half of the country’s territory.

The US confirmed this week that it has been conducting air strikes against Taliban positions. But it is not clear whether the US will provide military support for Afghan troops after its deployment ends. The US withdrawal is due to be completed on August 31.

The neighbourhood

Samoa: On Tuesday, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa was finally able to take office as Samoa’s first female prime minister after a 109-day standoff that left the Pacific nation without an effective government.

The historic shift of power followed a court decision that confirmed that Mata’afa was the winner of an election in April. For months, the ruling party refused to concede defeat and prevented her party from entering the parliament. In May, Mata’afa was sworn in at a ceremony in a tent outside the parliament – a move the court ruled was constitutional.

Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who had been prime minister for 23 years, agreed on Monday to step aside and serve in the opposition.

Mata’afa, a 64-year-old matai, or high chiefess, and a prominent national figure, had previously been a member of the ruling Human Rights Protection Party but left last year to join the new FAST Party following concerns over controversial laws dealing with land disputes. The two parties were tied after the election but an independent MP later joined FAST.

Mata’afa said the “illegal” attempt to prevent her taking power had damaged democracy and the rule of law in Samoa, suggesting that a constitutional review may be required.

“This long process has shown where things could go wrong and did go wrong,” she told Radio New Zealand.

Democracy in retreat

Tunisia: Kais Saied, the president of Tunisia, this week removed the prime minister, imposed a one-month curfew and banned public gatherings, but insisted he was not conducting a coup.

Saied, a former professor of constitutional law, claimed his dismissal of the government was necessary to address the country’s worsening unemployment and debt, which have been exacerbated by corruption, a surging Covid-19 outbreak and a mishandled vaccination rollout.

Tunisia remains, for now, the only country to emerge as a democracy from the Arab Spring – a wave of uprisings that began with protests in Tunisia in 2010 and led to the downfall of authoritarian leaders across the Middle East.

But the country, which has about 12 million residents, has remained fragile in the decade since it embraced democracy. Saied’s removal of the prime minister, which appeared to have public support, followed mass protests last weekend at which demonstrators called for the dissolution of parliament.

But the ruling Ennahda party described the move as “a coup against the Tunisian democracy and its constitution”.

Saied, who does not belong to a party, insisted his move was constitutional, saying he will quickly name a new prime minister. He has previously flagged proposals to weaken the power of political parties in favour of locally based parliamentarians.

The Biden administration, which has presented itself as a promoter of global democracy, did not describe the events as a coup but urged Saied to respect human rights. “Tunisia must not squander its democratic gains,” said Ned Price, a State Department spokesperson.

Spotlight: Vatican embezzlement

Rome: A leading Catholic cardinal, Giovanni Angelo Becciu, appeared in court this week to face charges of embezzlement and abuse of office in a corruption case that marks the largest criminal trial in the Vatican’s modern history.

Becciu and nine other defendants, including former Vatican officials, are accused of wrongdoing involving the investment of Vatican funds in a €350 million luxury property development in London.

A former close ally of Pope Francis, Becciu, who is 73 years old, has been accused of funnelling money to entities run by his brothers in Sardinia.

The trial follows a two-year investigation into the investment, which squandered tens of millions of euros, including donations from worshippers.

Following the investigation, Pope Francis sacked Becciu, who had led the Holy See’s saint-making office and was seen as a potential future pope.

The trial marks a test of the Pope’s commitment to cleaning up the Vatican’s finances. It could also expose details about the Vatican’s inner financial workings, as well as shedding light on how much the Pope knew about the London property deal. Last weekend, the Vatican released information about its global real estate holdings, revealing that it owns 4051 properties across Italy and about 1120 abroad.

Earlier this year, the Pope changed Vatican laws to ensure cardinals such as Becciu were tried by lay judges rather than by fellow cardinals.

The trial is being held in a hall in the Vatican Museums that was converted into a courtroom to allow space for the large numbers attending.    

Becciu has claimed he is the victim of a conspiracy. He and the other defendants have denied any wrongdoing. After an eight-hour procedural hearing on Tuesday, he told reporters: “The Pope wanted me to go on trial. I am obedient. I am here.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 31, 2021 as "US troops change role in Iraq as Biden focuses on Asia".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.