What if America leaves Iraq?

Salah Nasrawi , Friday 19 Nov 2021

There are only six weeks left before the US pulls its combat troops out of Iraq, yet it remains unclear whether the country has been steeling itself for the new era.

What if America leaves Iraq
Biden and Kadhimi in the Oval office (photo: AP)

Top brass in the Iraqi and US military met in Baghdad this month to update an earlier agreement for the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq by the end of the year. The deal was reached in July between US President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who was under pressure by pro-Iran militias in Iraq to order all US troops out of the country.

A joint statement issued after the 4 November meeting said the officers who met within the framework of the Security Technical Talk between Iraq and the Global Coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group “will continue to discuss plans towards a stage where there are no International Coalition forces with a combat role operating in Iraq.”

“The parties reaffirmed their commitment to continued partnership between the coalition and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and further defined how the coalition will continue to support the ISF in its advise, assist and enable role,” it said.

However, the readout did not categorically mention any plans for troop withdrawal by the deadline and instead said that “the parties agreed to continue their regular sessions through future engagements in order to complete the discussion of the remaining steps to finalise the transition of coalition forces to a non-combat role.”

“They agreed to reassess their progress in this relationship on a quarterly basis,” it said, indicating a long-term process in the pipeline.

The US-led Global Coalition against IS was formed in September 2014 and brings together troops from several Western nations that had declared a commitment “to degrading and ultimately defeating” the terror group that grabbed large swathes of the country in 2014.

Pro-Iran forces that gained more influence in Iraq during the fight against IS have constantly pushed for the expulsion of the US troops on the grounds that their presence violates Iraq’s sovereignty. The tactic is seen as carefully measured by the militias to put Biden under pressure to make more concessions to Iran.

Following the assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Al-Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in US drone strikes in January 2020, Iran’s proxies in Iraq have increasingly used rockets and explosive-laden drones in attacks on Iraqi bases hosting US forces, though they have been careful to ensure that the attacks do not trigger a major military escalation.

The Iraqi militias have also stepped up their attacks and rhetoric against the US troops in Iraq as Iran and the US have stumbled over a new nuclear agreement and as a form of additional pressure on the Biden administration while the two countries engage in indirect talks over their nuclear deal.

However, the discussions on the future of the US troops in Iraq come at a pivotal moment for both countries. Steps are expected to be taken by Iraq’s upcoming government on determining the future of the country as a sovereign nation, and the Biden administration will need to redeploy both its resources and attention to deter geopolitical rivals and engage with allies in the Middle East.

Although the Iraqi government declared that IS has been defeated in December 2017, the group has continued to carry out sporadic attacks across the country. Attacks by its mobile squads have been on the rise, targeting security checkpoints, infrastructure and local people collaborating with the government.

The group has frequently carried out deadly sectarian attacks, including suicide bombings against Iraqi Shia Muslims in an attempt to ignite communal fighting. Last month, the militants raided a Shia-populated village in Diyala Province east of Baghdad killing at least 11 civilians and wounding dozens of others.

In response, Shia tribesmen attacked a nearby village, killing an unspecified number of members of a Sunni tribe, destroying houses and cars with bulldozers, and setting fire to farms. The two attacks put the fragile province on the boil once more and raised fears of more sectarian violence.

The discussions about the future of the US troops in Iraq have also come as tensions have risen over allegations of electoral fraud following last month’s early elections.

The Sadrist bloc led by cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr was declared the winner of most of the seats in the new parliament, but its main Shia rival, the Fatah list, which is supported by Iran’s proxies, disputed the results, thrusting the country into a political crisis.

The list’s supporters have waged protests across Shia-populated towns and have pitched tents near the entrance to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone in an ongoing sit-in, threatening violence unless their grievances are addressed.

On 5 November, the protesters clashed with the security forces as they tried to storm into the Green Zone. Dozens were hurt, mostly from inhaling tear gas used by the security forces, and other nine policemen were injured after being pelted by stones.

Three days later, Al-Kadhimi escaped unhurt after a drone attack on his home inside the Green Zone, an attempted assassination widely seen as triggered by the clashes. The escalation sparked fears of further violence between government forces and supporters of the disoriented political parties, mostly militias aligned with Iran.

Concerns are high that the militias will resume their spoiler role if they are not re-accommodated in the Iraqi political system or if talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal collapse.

Meanwhile, the chaotic withdrawal by the US from Afghanistan over the summer that led to the fall of the Afghan government and allowed the Taliban to take over the country has cast shadows over Iraq.

Those who have found the presence of US troops essential for defeating IS now fear that a premature withdrawal will encourage the militants to regroup and evolve into another entrenched insurgency.

With increasing political uncertainty and worries that IS fortunes may be starting to change, allowing it to retake territory in Syria and Iraq, questions have arisen about when and if Iraqi and US policymakers will make an informed decision about future military cooperation.

For Iraq, the on-going tensions and growing political instability will continue to provide IS with the feeding ground to bolster its ranks, carry out more attacks and expand as it did in 2014 when it took advantage of the then political chaos.    

There are also well-founded doubts that government security forces are not well-equipped to defeat IS, with signs already emerging that the militants are exploiting weaknesses in the local security forces to find safe havens and targeting forces engaged in counter-IS operations.

There are concerns about the Iraqi military’s capabilities as well as fears that the involvement of the mostly Shia-based Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) in renewed fighting will jeopardise the fragile Shia-Sunni peace and pose formidable security threats, especially if it comes with Iranian support.

While Iraq’s policy decision on the US presence in the country must wait for the new government to take office, the Biden administration remains under the spotlight. There are questions about whether it will take the right decision, given the mistakes it made in Afghanistan and its vague policies towards the Middle East where it is facing a leadership crisis.

The Biden administration’s strategy towards Iran is focusing on returning to the negotiations over restoring the 2015 nuclear deal, while misreading the signals coming out of Tehran about the Islamic Republic’s intention of pursuing regional expansion with or without a nuclear deal.

Addressing Iran’s nuclear issue is one thing, but it is quite another to act as if Iraq’s future was not an American problem and one that can be left unsolved. Iraq is not Afghanistan, and the objectives, scope and security conditions of US operations in the two countries differ significantly.

Yet, the Biden administration will face similar blame regarding Iraqi military capacity if it pulls out of the country before bolstering the legitimacy and capability of the Iraqi state to endure a US withdrawal. Should it do so, it will have to face accusations of betrayal since the country is likely to descend into chaos and the region will continue to suffer from Iran’s influence.

This prompts a further key question: what difference would it make on the ground if the US and the Iraqi government agreed to change the status of the US troops in Iraq from combat to non-combat missions, as is widely expected, and this opened the door for a green light from the pro-Iran groups?

If the US-Chinese standoff over the US presence in Taiwan carries a lesson, Beijing’s rejection of Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen’s statement claiming that US troops are present on her island for “training purposes” could meet the same fate. It is unlikely that a mere name change of the US military presence in Iraq will erode the pro-Iran militias’ resistance or reduce their influence in the country.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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