Is Iraq witnessing a new era in its relations with the West?

Is Iraq witnessing a new era in its relations with the West?


Is Iraq witnessing a new era in its relations with the WestAmid mounting pressure to disband the international coalition against ISIS in Iraq and withdraw forces from that country, the United States and its partners must continue to strive to establish good relations with Baghdad – but this time in light of reducing their presence in Iraq and increasing regional cooperation.

At Baghdad’s request, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) was ordered to cease operations in December 2025, following a previous decision to end the mission of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by “Islamic State” organization (“UNITAD”). At the same time, Baghdad plans to close the remaining camps for internally displaced people in the country, after opening them for the first time at the height of the war against ISIS. More broadly, Iraq is seeking to normalize its diplomatic activity in the region, which has recently included mediating rapprochement talks between Turkey and the Syrian regime.

Despite the international support and military cooperation that characterized Western relations with Iraq in the post-Saddam era, Baghdad began to reevaluate long-existing arrangements. Washington and its partners must follow Baghdad’s example in the step it has taken, by scrutinizing the current basis on which relations with Iraq are based amid the changes taking place in the local and regional environment, while at the same time preserving the aspects of the relationship that bring the greatest benefit.

US Military Presence Then and Now
Since 2014, the US-led military presence in Iraq and Syria has hinged on the call to support the war against ISIS. After the coalition succeeded in ending ISIS control over Iraqi territory in 2017 and Syrian territory in 2019, discussions emerged about adapting its presence to fit Washington’s evolving priorities and Baghdad’s increasing security capacity and financial situation.

The outbreak of the Gaza war last year has added more intensity and tension to this issue, as American support for Israel has led to renewed Iraqi militia attacks at a time when there is an ongoing debate in Washington about the terms, duration, and legal authorization of regional military deployment. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a front group used by Iranian-backed armed groups, has claimed responsibility for at least 184 attacks on US forces and interests since the emergence of the resistance on October 18, including a drone strike on January 28. January led to the killing of three American soldiers (for comprehensive data on these incidents, see the Washington Institute’s militia attacks tracking table). The escalation of violence puts Baghdad in a critical and precarious position, as it seeks to maintain its alliance with both the United States and Iran.

In January, Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani stated that the coalition was no longer necessary to ensure the country’s security. That same month, the United States and Iraq began formal talks through the “Supreme Military Committee” to transform the coalition’s mission into a “permanent bilateral security partnership.” These actions are not surprising — both countries have regularly discussed reducing or ending the US military presence, and the Iraqi parliament has been voting on bills aimed at expelling foreign forces as early as 2020.

Has the fight that Iraq waged against the “Islamic State” organization really ended?
Although ISIS no longer poses an existential threat to Iraq, the country’s security forces have only a limited ability to act against the remnants of this terrorist group if the forces do not have coalition support in planning missions, launching airstrikes, and executing Intelligence operations, and other key tasks. Due to the ongoing disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region, some disputed areas (in the governorates), such as Kirkuk and Diyala, remain particularly vulnerable to the threat of ISIS, as this group seeks to take advantage of governance gaps and sectarian divisions to fuel violence and impose influence.

On the humanitarian front, the number of internally displaced people in Iraq fell from 6 million in 2014 to 1.1 million as of June 2023, but this sharp decline is largely due to the government’s decision to close several camps for internally displaced people. These areas have now turned into informal settlements where internally displaced people remain without access to government assistance, creating potential hotspots for terrorist recruitment. The ideological legacy of ISIS remains in Iraq, and the group continues to exploit security vulnerabilities to launch attacks and intimidate local residents.

The bumpy transformation has already begun.
The coalition has been quietly reducing its active role in the Iraqi security sector for several years. In December 2021, this coalition shifted from its combat mission to “advising, assisting and enabling,” although the United States, France and some other members were still participating in launching raids against the “Islamic State” in cooperation with the “Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service.” “—a vital mission given that the organization’s presence in neighboring Syria often threatens to spill across porous borders.

International humanitarian efforts have also been reduced. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, foreign funding met 95 percent of Iraqi aid requirements between 2017 and 2020, but this percentage fell to 67 percent in 2022. At the same time, the UN Security Council voted unanimously The “UNAMI” mission will end in 2025 – that is, the end of the mission of one of the longest and largest missions in the history of the international organization – and the “UNITAD” team will also stop working next September.

Policy Recommendations
Although criticism of the Iraqi government on some of these issues is certainly justified, Western cooperation with Baghdad on military and humanitarian issues is a major asset to both parties – and one that coalition members should strive to preserve when formulating arrangements. New partnership. It is understandable that Iraq would want to assert its autonomy, so foreign officials should focus more on bilateral security arrangements and development assistance rather than the previous model of multinational humanitarian and military assistance. These talks must also take into account the current political context in Iraq – which is divided between factions that seek good relations with the West, and those that serve the agenda of Iranian-backed militias by rejecting the Western presence entirely.

Despite these challenges and contradictions, it is possible to plan and organize this new phase in a way that is beneficial to both sides, as long as they keep several basic principles in mind:

Ensure that the Supreme Military Committee discussions between the United States and Iraq outline an orderly transition toward establishing a bilateral security partnership, in close coordination with coalition partners. In order to maintain Iraq’s military relations with the West, Washington must rely on allies that are less threatened by militias, and on multilateral frameworks other than those related to the coalition. For example, France remains deeply involved in the fight against ISIS, has begun developing a bilateral defense relationship with Baghdad, and has expressed its willingness to sell more weapons to the Iraqi army, including Rafale fighter jets. In addition, while the NATO Mission in Iraq has developed a complementary partnership with the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, the EU Advisory Mission in Iraq has been less convincing – partly because of internal problems, but also because the Iraqi Ministry of Interior is involved. More with pro-Iranian networks.
Continue cooperation in post-ISIS stabilization efforts. Internally displaced people in Iraq are not a homogeneous group – they include individuals displaced by the conflict with the Islamic State, Yazidi communities directly targeted by the group, and even families associated with it. Meeting their needs poses a major challenge due to the existing legal and social barriers. In addition, Iraq has returned nearly 10,000 of its citizens from the “Al-Hawl” detainee camp in northeastern Syria since May 2021, and transferred them to the “Jeddah 1” temporary camp in Nineveh Governorate before reintegrating them into society. To avoid an “Iraqi horror” ripe for recruitment and exploitation by the Islamic State, Baghdad must carefully consider the implications of expanding Jeddah 1 or opening new temporary camps, especially for individuals returning home and affiliated with the Islamic State. For their part, Washington and its partners must ensure that Iraq is prepared to manage the repatriation and reintegration file while taking into account human rights that are consistent with international law. This week’s decision by the United Nations investigative team UNITAD to send large amounts of data on ISIS crimes to Baghdad is a good first step, but it is just one part of a broader process.
Working more closely with regional partners. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have played an increasing economic and political role in Iraq recently. Last year, Riyadh announced a $3 billion partnership in various sectors to help diversify Iraq’s oil-dependent economy, while Doha signed several memorandums of understanding with Baghdad in the energy field. Qatar and Turkey are also participating in the construction of the “Development Road,” a railway and road project aimed at connecting Asia with Europe. As for Ankara’s intention to resume military operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the groups that orbit it in Iraq and northeastern Syria, it will complicate any rapprochement process with Washington, but in the end, the West may have to choose between Iranian influence and Turkish influence in Iraq.
Monitor the political arena in Iraq carefully – but keep expectations realistic. The West may be able to play a greater role in mediating Baghdad’s disputes with the Kurdistan Region, after the UN Security Council recently adopted a resolution that removed the reference to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, whose mandate previously included the exercise of this mediation. Moreover, the Kurds may become closer partners to Washington if US forces withdraw from federal Iraq, since Baghdad would remain divided between pro-Iranian and pro-Western spheres of influence. Therefore, US partners will need to exercise a skillful mix of targeted pressure and strategic patience with Iraq, using both sanctions and incentives as they attempt to facilitate the long-term goal of addressing corruption, federalism, outlaw militias, and other structural challenges.