There was not much that could be extracted from a statement by the US State Department about a visit by an inter-agency delegation to Baghdad last week for talks with Iraqi leaders on bilateral relations following the crumbling of the Islamic State (IS) group.
The press note by the department’s spokesperson said the talks, led by US Deputy Secretary of State John J Sullivan, had focused on reinforcing “joint efforts to maintain an enduring defeat of IS”.
Yet, nowhere in the statement did the spokesperson mention if the high-level delegation had discussed the future of the thousands of US troops sent into Iraq to fight IS or provide insights into US strategy in post-IS Iraq.
Now that the terrorist group has largely been curbed, questions are being raised about the future of the US involvement in Iraq, including Washington’s stance on the rush by Iran-backed Shia militias to fill the vacuum there.
Anxiety about the Trump administration’s commitment to keeping US troops in Iraq remains at the top of the concerns of Iraq as well as of neighbouring countries.
Pentagon officials have indicated that they want to keep some US troops in Iraq despite steady advances against IS strongholds to counter what US commanders still see as serious threats in the country.
US and Arab media have quoted Sullivan as saying that keeping the momentum up in the fight against IS topped the agenda of his talks with the Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.
“The IS remnants will remain a continuous problem, and we cannot ignore it or repeat the mistakes we committed in the past when we underestimated [the danger] and let American troops be withdrawn from Iraq,” several media outlets quoted Sullivan as saying.
This is the clearest statement yet by the Trump administration that it is not cutting back on future military commitments in Iraq. It is expected to deepen the American involvement in Iraq, even though US officials had been saying that their priorities would remain training Iraqi forces and conducting counter-terrorism operations.
Trump campaigned for election to the White House by promising to extricate the United States from foreign conflicts, and if the administration now plans to extend the US mission in Iraq it will mean a prolonged troop presence.
The overall US strategy in Iraq, which straddles a critical geopolitical fault-line between competing regional players and world powers, remains vague and may obscure certain issues.
One favourite speculation by American analysts is that Trump wants to keep a strong political, diplomatic and military presence in Iraq in order to repel Iran’s increasing influence in the country.
Trump wants to stop Iran from making Iraq’s Shia militias a subsidiary of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), allowing Tehran to use them to create regional instability, the analysis goes.
But this strategy has often proven wrong, and instead of reining in its ambitions in Iraq the Islamic Republic has used the chaos created by the US-led invasion in 2003 to increase its own influence in Iraq and in the region.
Iran has for years planted friendly ministers inside the Iraqi parliament and government agencies, and it has been training Iraqi Shia militias to fight IS in Iraq and for the Syrian government across the border.
To give just one example of Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq, the Shia militias that it has nurtured are now putting their sights on the Iraqi parliament after playing a crucial role in the war against IS.
Once in parliament, the militia leaders will hope to consolidate their power base in Iraq’s political system and boost their role in domestic politics.
Among the top priorities of militia leaders who will join the new assembly in May will be to ask the US troops to leave Iraq and to work for tighter political and security relations with Iran.
The other US option to isolate Iran is to crush organisations currently fighting in Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East in conjunction with US allies such Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Speculation is rife that Israel is preparing public opinion for a new war on Lebanon over the actions of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and allegations of its efforts to set up Iranian-supplied arms and missiles plants in the country.
Media reports from Israel suggest that Israeli decision-makers and the heads of the country’s security apparatus have raised the possibility of preparing the Israeli public for a new war in Lebanon.
The US-based Monitor Website reported on Friday that this new war was expected to encompass the entire northern front with Lebanon and include Hizbullah and Syrian forces along with their Iranian backers.
Rumours also abound about another possible Israeli war on the southern front with Gaza, which is ruled by the Iranian-supported Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas.
Judging by Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric, Washington is expected to extend help to Israel in these conflicts. Yet, fighting Hizbullah and Iran in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza could entail great risk and have the potential to cause a resounding conflagration throughout the region.
Thus far, Iran has responded triumphantly to the rumours, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday vowing to boost the Islamic Republic’s military power despite the pressure from the US and its allies.
IRGC Deputy Commander Hussein Salami said on Sunday that Iran “considers the option of war realistic, and we are prepared for it”.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on 1 February that Tehran had no intention of abandoning its influence in “Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.”
Trump’s strategy in Syria, which also focuses on “rolling back Iranian influence” in the war-torn nation, illustrates a further US failure in confronting the increasing Iranian influence.
Iran, aided by Russia, has already turned the tide in the Syrian Civil War decisively in favour of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and there is no indication that the Trump administration has a strategy to match Tehran’s and Moscow’s influence in Syria.
Washington’s deployment of hundreds of troops in Syria has been contested as illegal because they are there without the consent of the Damascus government. Once the Shia militias have a say in Iraq’s politics after the May elections, this is expected to change.
The militias, which share Iran’s anger over the American presence in Syria, will certainly try to block US troop movements across Iraq’s Western border, their only root to Syria.
This will end the US involvement in Syria and the American military engagement in Iraq and enhance Iran’s influence in the two countries such that it is able to develop a permanent Iranian geopolitical presence there.
The confusion in the US approach in Iraq has therefore raised serious questions about whether the Trump administration has a hidden agenda. Like its two predecessors following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Trump administration has helped Iran tighten its grip on the beleaguered country and take centre-stage in the Middle East.
In the conventional analysis, Washington’s accommodationist policy towards Iran’s influence in Iraq is taken as either empty rhetoric or pure naiveté.
Yet, Washington’s secret agenda could go beyond giving Iran a bloody nose or even promoting US interests and leadership in the Middle East.
One way of trying to figure out this agenda is to look at Trump’s forthcoming Middle East peace proposals, the so-called “deal of the century,” which are in line with the long-standing Israeli-US roadmap of killing the Palestinian state solution.
Enough clues are already available that Iraq and Syria loom large in the “deal,” since the two countries can absorb those Palestinians who will lose their homes when Iraq’s and Syria’s maps have been redrawn.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly