U.S. agency to help Iraq recover from IS despite Trump aid cuts

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States is committed to helping Iraq recover from three years of war against Islamic State despite President Donald Trump cutting the foreign aid budget, a senior official in its main government aid agency has said.

An Iraqi Federal Police member carries a machine gun as he walks along a street controlled by Iraqi forces during a break in combat against Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, April 3. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Thomas Staal, the Counselor of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said the agency would continue to provide basic humanitarian services and additional support for minority groups such as psychosocial support to those who suffered genocide, slavery, and gender-based violence.

“The budget that the president submitted included a 30 percent cut, but for Iraq actually we are looking at additional funding, especially for the victims of Islamic State,” Staal told Reuters in an interview at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Trump staked out his position on foreign aid on the campaign trail, casting it as a waste of U.S. tax dollars. The White House proposed slashing the budget for foreign aid by a third.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared final victory over Islamic State on Saturday after Iraqi forces drove the last remnants of the group from the country, three years after the militants captured about a third of Iraq’s territory.

The war has had a devastating impact on the areas previously controlled by the militants. About 3.2 million people remain displaced, the United Nations says.

The last estimate by Abadi put the cost of post-war reconstruction at $50 billion, a figure calculated before Iraqi forces retook Mosul, which severely damaged the biggest city in northern Iraq.

The U.S. government has provided nearly $1.7 billion in humanitarian assistance for Iraq since the Islamic State takeover of the north in 2014, Staal said.

That includes a total of $265 million donated to the United Nations Development Programme’s Iraq stabilization fund in 2016 and 2017. USAID has asked UNDP to focus on the minority areas, said Staal, who met with Christian and Yazidi leaders during a five-day visit to Iraq.

“The primary request from everybody was security,” said Staal, who also met with two young women who were sold into slavery by Islamic State fighters.

In 2014, more than 3,000 Yezidis were killed by Islamic State in what the United Nations described as a genocidal campaign. Others were sold into sexual slavery or forced to fight.

Iraq is exempted from Trump’s policy of cutting aid because of the especially “terrible plight” experienced by Islamic State’s victims, Staal said, but it was a short term focus.

“The long term solution is that the Iraqi government is going to have to provide services to people in a more effective, efficient way,” he said.

USAID is working directly with Iraqi ministries to train staff and improve efficiency, with procurement reform high up on the agenda, Staal said.

Corruption is rife in all levels of government in Iraq, which in 2016 ranked 166 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

Abadi has repeatedly said that once Islamic State was beaten, fighting corruption would be his next focus.

(The story was refiled to fix a typo in paragraph 2)

Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Peter Graff