US to Grant Iraq Gas Waiver

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The U.S. plans to grant Iraq a 120-day sanctions waiver enabling the country to import Iranian gas and electricity to meet its power needs, the State Department said, hours after a new prime minister was sworn in early Thursday.

The exemption would be the longest period of time in months granted to Iraq to prove it is making progress in becoming less reliant on Iranian imports, a key condition of receiving the waiver.

The waiver would indicate a show of support after the inauguration of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was sworn in after lawmakers passed the majority of his Cabinet appointments early Thursday.

Strategic talks between Washington and Baghdad are expected next month and will run the gamut of U.S.-Iraq relations, from military to economic support, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials. Key questions including the nature of U.S. troop presence are expected to be discussed.

Al-Kadhimi's new program includes a vow to hold early elections, address Iraq's severe health and economic woes amid falling oil prices, and bring arms under the control of the state. All are measures welcomed by the U.S.

Lawmakers approved 15 appointees out of a Cabinet of 22, allowing al-Kadhimi to form a government under Iraqi constitutional guidelines. Other ministry portfolios will be subject to further negotiation with parliamentary political blocs.

Shortly after he was officially named premier, al-Kadhimi spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.

"In support of the new government the United States will move forward with a 120-day electricity waiver as a display of our desire to help provide the right conditions for success," said spokesperson Morgan Ortagus according to the statement.

Recent waivers gave Iraq just 30 days to make headway in developing domestic gas supply or else find alternative sources to meet energy needs. They were a sign of growing impatience from Washington as Iraqi elites jockeyed over al-Kadhimi's proposed Cabinet lineup.

Iraq needs Iranian gas and electricity imports to meet up to 30% of domestic power needs.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said talks next month would "reaffirm" ties with Iraq.

"The new government must now turn to the hard work of implementing much needed reforms and addressing the needs of the Iraqi people. Our upcoming Strategic Dialogue with the government of Iraq aims to reaffirm the value of the U.S.-Iraqi partnership for both of our countries," the embassy said in a statement.

U.S.-Iraq ties suffered under the administration of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The tense relationship was exacerbated by a Washington-directed airstrike that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport. Abdul-Mahdi staunchly supported ejecting U.S. troops from Iraq following the killing, which strained ties with Washington.

The U.S.-led coalition has withdrawn from several Iraqi bases across the country in line with a planned drawdown conceived in December. Troops have consolidated in Baghdad and the sprawling Ain al-Asad base in Anbar province.