The United States hopes that the International Coalition it assembled to fight the Islamic State (IS) group in 2014 will help it make its way back to Iraq and even to keep long-term access to military bases in the country.
That seems not about to happen. Pro-Iran Shia groups that increasingly act as a dominant power and an arm of the state are challenging the US across Iraq and are pushing Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi to send the US forces home.
The US started to send troops to Iraq in June 2014 in order to assist dozens of US military advisers based in Baghdad in helping the Iraqi military in the fight against the IS militants.
Washington has since quietly sent thousands of additional troops to Iraq and Syria to work under the International Coalition it set up to fight IS. The build-up has raised scepticism about the US involvement in Iraq and Syria and the US strategy in the Middle East.
As Iraqis prepare to go to the polls in May, the presence of the US troops in the country has become a campaign issue, with pro-Iran politicians and militia leaders escalating demands for a US troop withdrawal.
On 2 March, Iraq’s 328-member parliament voted to press Al-Abadi to draw up a clear timetable to kick out foreign troops from Iraq. The vote, sponsored by lawmakers from the ruling Shia bloc in parliament, was backed by all but a handful of the 177 lawmakers present.
However, Saad Al-Hadithi, a spokesman for Al-Abadi, said that Iraq still needed the US troops in its fight against IS, “especially in training and other logistical affairs.”
Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led Coalition, has sought to reassure allies that the US will not be making a premature departure. He tweeted that the coalition’s presence in Iraq “will be conditions-based, proportional to the need, and in coordination with the Iraqi government”.
The backlash against the US was inflamed by reports that US military chiefs want to keep the option of using up to four bases around Iraq.
The four bases the US army is interested in are said to be the Baghdad International Airport and three others in western and southern Iraq where US special forces are currently based.
The US newspaper the New York Times quoted US officials as saying that they were looking at developing a continued military relationship with the new Iraqi government when it emerges after the elections.
The US administration is trying to convince the Iraqi government that the US presence might only involve long-term “access” to bases rather than a permanent operational deployment, the paper said.
Meanwhile, thousands of Coalition forces remain in Iraq and Syria even after IS has lost 98 per cent of the territory in the two countries it once controlled as part of its self-declared caliphate.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has disclosed that more NATO troops are heading to Iraq to participate in the organisation’s programme for training Iraqi ground forces and police.
Canada and Singapore said last week that they were also considering sending more troops to Iraq this year as part of the International Coalition to deal with terrorism.
The controversy over the US military presence in Iraq and Washington’s weapons supplies to Baghdad started last month when the Pentagon demanded that the Iraqi army take over several US-made M-1 tanks that were transferred to the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias.
The Pentagon complained that the tanks had been deployed by the militias against Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq that Washington considers US allies.
Washington also threatened to withhold future arms shipments to Iraq, and US manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems has reportedly suspended its maintenance operations in the country.
The US magazine Foreign Policy quoted one maintenance contractor as saying that the Iraqi army could not maintain its tanks without American help and that as many as half of Iraq’s M1s await repairs.
Washington has also voiced concerns over reports that Baghdad has recently expressed an interest in purchasing Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile defence systems.
Iraq has reportedly been seeking the long-range air-defence systems that are capable of destroying aircraft and cruise and ballistic missiles in order to protect its territory from aerial threats.
Last month, Russian media outlets reported that the first batch of Russian-made T-90 tanks had arrived in Basra in southern Iraq. They said that more of the advanced tanks were on their way to Iraq.
The US has indicated that it could retaliate against Iraq with sanctions under US law. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, imposes sanctions on countries that purchase weapons from Moscow.
The bickering over US troops and weapons supplies, however, has underlined much bigger issues, primarily the future of the US relationship with Iraq and Washington’s entire Middle East strategy.
The US says it wants to maintain a military presence in Iraq until the Iraqi security forces are strong enough to prevent IS terrorists from re-emerging as a serious threat.
US military officials say they want to shift the focus from enabling the Iraqi military’s combat operations to maintaining gains as IS militants return to guerrilla warfare.
They say that the Trump administration should avoid a repeat of the mistakes of its predecessor when it withdrew US forces from Iraq in 2010 only for these to be pulled back onto the battlefield when IS seized about one third of Iraq in 2014.
But speculation remains that the Trump administration, which is setting itself up as anti-Iran, wants to keep a strong political, diplomatic and military presence in Iraq in order to repel Iran’s increasing influence in the country.
As far as the Iraqis themselves are concerned, opinion seems to be sharply divided. Al-Abadi has said that his government wants the US-led Coalition to stay on in the country for now, but his Shia political rivals are using the continued presence of the foreign troops to undermine him.
Some powerful Shia militias backed by Iran have threatened to attack the US forces if they remain in Iraq.
Many Iraqi Sunnis seem to be supportive of the idea of having US troops in Iraq to maintain the equilibrium with Iran’s influence in the country.
Some Sunni politicians have been pushing for US troops to police their provinces during the upcoming elections in order to stave off possible interference from Shia militias.
Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the parliamentary session on the US presence. They said the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq does not have military capabilities strong enough to face a powerful enemy like IS and that it needs the US troops to help.
Given the divisions and the staunch opposition from the Shia militias, the US ambition to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq seems to be overstated.
While the US administration hopes that Al-Abadi will hold onto his post after the polls in May in order to help it keep a strong military presence in Iraq, the Iran-backed Shia groups in the country that are expected to join the new parliament are determined to ask the US troops to leave.
The wrangling has raised the stakes that the US bases in Iraq could become the targets for terrorist attacks. Some militia leaders have threatened that US troops could face a “dark night” or “hell” if they remain in Iraq after the elections.
At its core, this is a debate over whether the United States can handle a situation in which its troops are trapped in a quagmire with local militias that have political support, or whether it should keep its promise to leave the country “as soon as possible” after the liberation of the Iraqi cities from IS.
The problem is that too many parties to this conflict have an interest in keeping up the charade, and this makes the stakes for US plans in Iraq and for its whole Middle East strategy all the more enormous.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly