Backed by a US-led International Coalition, the Iraqi security forces have now almost completely dismantled the Islamic State (IS) group that had earlier seized vast tracts of land in Iraq and Syria and declared a “Caliphate.”
US-backed Syrian opposition forces have launched a “final battle” to capture the last small pocket of land held by IS, effectively bringing an end to the group’s territorial ambitions in Syria.
The defeat of IS marks an important victory, and as the group’s territory has shrunk, its leadership structure collapsed, and the number of its fighters dwindled, the future of the terror group remains anybody’s guess.
With this comes the question of what to do with the US-led coalition forged to defeat the group and in particular with the thousands of US soldiers in Iraq and Syria after the end of IS’s territorial control.
Thus far, indecision has reigned in the Iraqi leadership, which is paralysed by inefficiency, political and sectarian divisions and competitive foreign and regional influences.
In December, US President Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw the 2,000 US troops from Syria. The abrupt decision provoked widespread fears over a future IS resurgence and was opposed by top aides, including US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned in protest.
In Iraq, however, the presence of the US troops remains a hot potato as the issue has been scaled up to grand talk about the country’s sovereignty and independence.
The core question for Iraqi policy-makers now is whether Baghdad should ask Washington to withdraw its troops from Iraq with IS nearly defeated on the battlefield.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein and brought Iran-linked Shia groups to power, Iraqis have blamed interference by Washington for exacerbating their country’s woes.
Under a 2008 executive agreement with the Baghdad government, US troops were supposed to leave Iraq three years later. The Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) was intended to shape the legal, economic, cultural and security relations between the two countries.
According to the agreement with Iraq’s government, Washington would “support and strengthen Iraq’s democracy and its democratic institutions and enhance Iraq’s capability to protect these institutions against all internal and external threats.”
The agreement also stated that “the United States shall not use Iraqi land, sea and air as a launch or transit point for attacks against other countries, nor seek or request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq.”
Critics contended that the United States had aimed to outmanoeuvre Iraq with the agreement and keep its influence in the beleaguered country, however. Some even said that Washington had usurped Iraqi sovereignty.
Fewer than three years after the US troops withdrew from Iraq, former president Barack Obama ordered hundreds of them back to help Iraq repel the advance of IS terrorists, claiming the US would not be dragged into another bloody war in the country.
With the war against IS dragging, the number of troops mushroomed into thousands and their mission gradually crept to near-unrecognisable levels. And as the military campaigns succeeded in recovering territory from IS, vital questions about the future of the US troops in Iraq remained.
During his election campaign, Trump promised to end the “disastrous war” in Iraq, but he never spelled out his plans about keeping the several thousand US troops in the country.
Trump’s sudden decision to pull US troops out of Syria in December then raised speculation about the presence of US forces in Iraq in view of the varying military and political assessments of the post-IS era.
It retriggered debate about the US troop presence and sparked demands for a similar withdrawal from Iraq. The final straw for opponents of the US presence came when Trump announced on 3 February that he wanted the US troops to stay in Iraq to “watch Iran.”
Trump’s remarks immediately raised Iraqi fears that the US could draw the war-weary country into conflict with neighbouring Iran. It led Iraqi leaders to voice concerns that the United States was disrespecting Iraq’s sovereignty.
Some voices, particularly among pro-Iranian Shia militias, even promised to push the Iraqi parliament to ask the US troops to leave. Others went as far as to warn that they would demand the cancellation of the Strategic Framework Agreement with Washington.
Leader of one of the strongest Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq Quiz Al-Khalil warned in an interview with the Associated Press that US troops could be driven out “by force” if they were to stay in Iraq against the parliament’s will.
But Trump’s comment also exposed the Iraqi political divide as many Sunni and Kurdish leaders expressed the hope that Washington would continue to support the Iraqi government in its efforts to improve security and build state institutions.
Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq Nechirvan Barzani has said that US troops should stay in Iraq until the IS threat is fully eliminated.
Sunni and Kurdish political leaders have reportedly continued to reach out to the US to argue that the IS threat remains and that the US troops are consequently still needed in Iraq.
As a result, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Madhi must now deal with the controversy surrounding the American troops in Iraq, with this becoming a major political game played by different parties.
So far, Abdul-Mahdi has made vague statements about the issue as he apparently struggles to shore up his position to serve a full four-year term as the country’s leader amid continuing wrangling over the composition of his government and its policies.
He has made it clear that the US forces are in Iraq at the invitation of the Baghdad government and they are not allowed to establish military bases in Iraq. He has also rejected the notion that Iraq can be used as a springboard for any American military action against Iran.
Yet, Abdul-Mahdi has been reluctant to set a clear policy on the future of the US troops, demonstrating weak leadership in resolving a dispute which could turn into a national crisis if Iraq is caught in the crossfire between Iran and the United States.
But while fears of an escalating Iran-US conflict pose a dilemma for Iraq, IS remains capable of wreaking damage around the country simply by inspiring its adherents to take up guns, bombs or even suicide missions.
Media reports have suggested that Abdul-Mahdi has asked Washington to keep some of its troops in Iraq to help secure areas where IS militants are believed to be operating, including the vast desert on the border with Syria.
As the group’s territory has shrunk, its militants have been innovating by returning to guerrilla warfare through sleeper cells that enjoy safe havens among supportive local populations.
Security analysts say that even after the group’s territorial defeat and its leadership structure collapsing, IS is regrouping and is likely to remain a powerful terrorist force that could revert to an insurgency.
Abdul-Mahdi’s approach to the future of the US troops in Iraq is also a symptom of a much bigger problem. Held hostage by competing political groups in the country, Abdul-Mahdi lacks authority to present a coherent vision of the future of the American presence in Iraq.
Almost four months after assuming office, Abdul-Mahdi’s position on the issue remains inconsistent. He wants the advantages of having close relations with Iran, while at the same time retaining the freedom to deal with the Americans.
This is a political game that will only increase Iraq’s uncomfortable dilemma. And nowhere is this conundrum more precarious than in the indecisions about the future of the US troops in Iraq.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraq’s indecision strategy