A Katyusha rocket slammed into an Iraqi base in the northern city of Kirkuk last week in the latest of a string of attacks in recent week on camps where US troops are stationed across the country. It was the first attack on the camp since 27 December, when a volley of around 30 rockets killed a US contractor and unleashed dramatic escalation.
Multiple rockets hit near the US Embassy in Baghdad early on Sunday sending warning sirens blaring across the huge diplomatic compound in the fortified Green Zone in the Iraqi capital.
The recent violence followed a series of tit-for-tat attacks including an American drone strike which killed top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in Baghdad in January, highlighting the crisis between the United States and Iraq over the presence of thousands of US troops in the country.
In response, Iran fired at least 10 ballistic missiles at the sprawling Iraqi Ain Al-Assad Base in the desert more than 100 miles northwest of Baghdad. The attack caused considerable damage to the camp and left dozens of US service personnel suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
The escalation comes amid uncertainty in Iraq triggered by a nearly six-month-old anti-establishment and anti-Iran popular uprising and a government crisis that has paralysed the country and undermined its fragile political order.
It comes as no surprise, however, that the issue of the US troop presence in Iraq has taken such centre stage, as turmoil in Iraq and US-Iran tensions have been building for months, leading to fears of a renewal of the Islamic State (IS) group insurgency.
Still, whether the United States should withdraw from Iraq has raised some serious questions: Is Iraq ready for the withdrawal? Does the United States want to pull out? What a withdrawal from Iraq would look like, what are the consequences of the withdrawal for the regional and world’s geopolitics?
The US has partnered with Iraq since 2014 to take back territory from IS control, and today more than 5,000 US troops train, advise and assist the Iraqi security forces in making sure the group does not regain territory in the country.
The Iraqi parliament voted last month to ask the government to remove US troops from Iraq. In an extraordinary session, the lawmakers backed a resolution to end the 2014 agreement that authorised the US deployment in Iraq.
Iraq’s caretaker government has not yet initiated a formal process to kick the US troops out of the country, but reports suggest that the Iraqi authorities have told the country’s military not to seek assistance from the US-led Coalition in operations against the IS terror group.
However, sharp disputes have emerged between the pro-Iran Shia blocs that dominate the parliament and are pushing to expel the US troops and others that argue that a full withdrawal could pave the way for terrorist groups to reestablish a safe haven in Iraq.
Iranian officials, meanwhile, have been vocal about the Islamic Republic’s strategy following Suleimani’s killing in ultimately forcing the US to exit Iraq.
The country’s minority Kurdish and Sunni political groups and some Shia groups and politicians have said that the removal of the US forces could trigger a backlash and create a serious security vacuum.
The question, therefore, remains as to whether Iraq is prepared for the US troop withdrawal without risking more violence and insecurity because of communal divisions, political instability, Iranian interference and the risk of an IS comeback.
While Iraq remains in a stalemate over a new government that is expected to make a final decision on the future of the US military presence soon, conflicting signals have been coming from Iraq’s military as to whether it is ready to take the security challenge.
On the ground, the Iraqi security forces have resumed joint operations with the US-led Coalition to counter IS after a nearly three-week pause after the parliament’s decision.
Last week the Iraqi joint command said it had launched a major offensive to hunt down IS militants in Iraq’s western Anbar province and border areas with neighbouring Syria and Jordan while making no mention of the participation of the US-led Coalition.
For the United States, the issue is also no less complex and controversial. US officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have publicly said that Washington has no intention of leaving Iraq, let alone negotiating a withdrawal agreement.
The question of whether US troops should leave or stay is also looming large over the US presidential elections to take place later this year. In 2016, US President Donald Trump was elected in part because he promised to end the “endless wars” and bring US forces home from Iraq and other Middle Eastern conflicts.
Last week, the US Senate approved a bill curbing Trump’s ability to wage war on Iran without congressional approval. If endorsed, the Iran War Powers Resolution would restrict Trump’s ability to use US troops in Iraq for that purpose.
But in order for the Trump administration to have a viable strategy against both the IS threat and Iran, it will need to determine what it intends to do with the US troops in Iraq.
Discussions about the future of the US presence in Iraq is also occupying a prominent role on both regional and international agendas, with the focus on how it will shape Middle East geopolitics.
The Arab allies of the US and Israel are not hiding their concerns that a US withdrawal from Iraq could create a gap that could be filled by Iran, and they are implicitly urging Washington to reflect on the possible regional implications of its decision.
Washington’s western allies are also apprehensive and fear that a US withdrawal from Iraq would help to upend power structures in the Middle East, impacting their security and interests.
The overarching question for US allies like Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Norway, also members of the anti-IS International Coalition, is whether a US withdrawal from Iraq would mean leaving the Middle East to non-western powers such as Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Many of these countries are concerned over their participation in the coalition as the future of US military personnel in Iraq remains unclear. Such uncertainty for them represents a critical challenge for Middle Eastern and international security.
Given the complexity of the problem and its multidimensional impact, the parties will want to find an acceptable way out. A solution will probably come from NATO, which has offered an option that could be acceptable to both Baghdad and Washington.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared last week that the organisation would take over some of the training activities currently carried out by the US-led Coalition against IS in Iraq.
Stoltenberg said that alliance defence ministers had agreed in principle to enhancing NATO’s mission in Iraq, explaining that this “will consist of taking on some of the global coalition’s current training activities.”
The expansion of the NATO mission would allow Washington to reduce its military “footprint” in Iraq and allow Baghdad to claim that it had complied with the parliament’s decision to expel the US troops.
NATO already has non-combatant “train-and-advise” missions in Iraq that aim to develop the Iraqi security forces, but these have been suspended over fears for regional stability after Suleimani’s and Al-Muhandis’s killing in Baghdad on 3 January.
If there is further NATO involvement, all the Coalition troops in Iraq, including the Americans, could move to work under a NATO flag once the alliance’s Iraq mission restarts and Iraq’s new government gives its consent to the new arrangement.
In order to facilitate such an understanding, the US last week granted Iraq a 45-day sanctions waiver enabling the country to continue importing vital Iranian gas and electricity supplies to assuage an electricity shortfall and meet growing power needs.
The new waiver gives Iraq just 45 days to do so, instead of previous waivers that gave Iraq 120 days. The US has applied stringent sanctions on Iran that punish any country trading with it.
Yet, by cutting the waiver period short, Washington is dangling a carrot before Iraq while still holding the stick of sanctions in its hands.
Trump has threatened severe sanctions against Iraq if US forces are asked to depart on an “unfriendly basis.” He said any sanctions on Iraq would “make the Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
While it is still being worked out, a NATO training mission could be a cover up for the US troops to remain in Iraq. The expected scenario will see US army in the diving seat of the allies’ operation in Iraq while disguised as NATO soldiers.
Practically speaking, therefore, the NATO mission could be Iraq’s best option to quell opposition to the American presence and save Iraq from sharp domestic division and growing regional turmoil.
Opponents to a premature departure of US troops will certainly sign on seeing the NATO alternative as a guarantor for stability in crisis ravaged Iraq and a deterrence against Iran which will most certainly try to fill the void left by America’s withdrawal to increase its influence in Iraq.
However, it remains to be seen whether the pro-Iran Shia political groups that are avowedly committed to seeing the US troops leaving will put Iraq’s interests first and avoid a major crisis by accepting such a face-saving compromise.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.