Leaving Iraq may be Washington’s wisest choice

Leaving Iraq may be Washington’s wisest choice


Leaving Iraq may be Washingtons wisest choiceMost US forces will likely be withdrawn from Iraq or transferred to the Kurdistan Region without harming US interests. In fact, Washington may have greater influence in Baghdad without the presence of troops.

In response to the killing of three American soldiers in Jordan in late January, the United States launched two sets of airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq earlier this month. While some in Washington criticized the raids because, in their opinion, they aimed to improve the image and were widely publicized, the strikes – which targeted an Iraqi Shiite militia classified by the United States as a terrorist group – represented a major departure from the principle of restraint that the Biden administration has long exercised towards the forces. Iranian agent in Iraq. As appropriate and long overdue as the strikes against Iran’s proxies in Iraq are, they are generating a major political backlash in Baghdad, with unknown consequences for the US military presence in Iraq.

Since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, US forces and members of the US diplomatic corps in Iraq and Syria have been subjected to nearly 180 attacks by Iranian-backed militias that fall under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Forces – a network that includes more than 75 paramilitary groups form part of the Iraqi army. In an attempt to calm the escalation with Tehran and avoid diplomatic complications with Baghdad – and given that there were no American deaths before the January 28 attack – the Biden administration exercised restraint. If it responds at all, it usually retaliates by striking targets in Syria. However, on February 2, US forces struck 85 targets in Iraq and Syria, including two militia bases in Iraq’s Anbar province, and on February 5 assassinated a senior commander in Kataib Hezbollah – the group responsible for the attack in Jordan – in Plane attack in downtown Baghdad.

The American strikes sparked a strong reaction in Iraq from friends and enemies alike. As expected, militia leaders and Iran’s Iraqi allies strongly condemned the strikes. But the Iraqi government’s condemnations of the United States – and statements of support for the Popular Mobilization Forces – were also strong. The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani described the US operations on February 2 as “an act of aggression against the sovereignty of Iraq,” and described the members of the Popular Mobilization Forces who were killed by the United States for their role in attacking American forces as “martyrs.” Al-Sudani also visited the wounded militiamen in the hospital, wished them a “speedy recovery,” and declared three days of mourning.

At the same time, the Iraqi government issued a statement on the “X” website (formerly known as “Twitter”) in which it accused the American forces and the international coalition against ISIS of “endangering security and stability in Iraq.” The spokesman for the Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces, Major General Yahya Rasoul, went further, noting that the American measures that “threaten civil peace” will force the Iraqi government to “end the mission of this coalition,” which “threatens to drag Iraq into the circle of conflict.” These sentiments were echoed by the Iranian-backed political bloc under which Sudanese orbits, known as the “Coordination Framework,” which asked the government to end the presence of the international coalition.

To be sure, demands to end the US military presence in Iraq are not new. Since the Trump administration adopted a maximum pressure campaign against Iran in 2018 and the subsequent regional defeat of ISIS in Iraq in 2019, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias have been targeting US personnel in Iraq in hopes of forcing them to withdraw. The attacks witnessed ebbs and flows – they increased after the assassination of the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Soleimani, and diminished after the reclassification of US forces from “combat” forces to “train and equip” forces – but the threat was constant.

Meanwhile, the safety of American soldiers – who are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government as part of the international coalition against ISIS – as well as American diplomats is at risk, not only because of the militias, but also because of the inaction of the Iraqi government, which has neither shown the will nor the ability to Protecting American personnel. Unfortunately, this is understandable. Not only are the Popular Mobilization Forces militias on the Iraqi government’s payroll, but some of these key militias – including the two groups Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, which the United States has designated as terrorists – participate in Sudan’s government coalition as political partners. .

Last month, Al-Sudani announced that his government would soon begin negotiations with Washington to end the coalition’s presence in Iraq. It is still unclear whether Al-Sudani himself prefers the coalition’s withdrawal or whether his statement aims only, as one of his advisors told Reuters, “to appease the angry parties within the ruling Shiite coalition.” Just one year ago, Al-Sudani expressed concern about the spread of terrorism from Syria, where ISIS is still active. “We need foreign forces,” he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. There is no doubt that the war waged by Israel against “Hamas” and the recent American air strikes on Iraqi territory have raised the political cost borne by Sudanese in supporting the continued presence of the coalition.

If Sudanese really wants American forces to remain in Iraq, he has a strange way of showing it. In December, US Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski praised Al-Sudani and his administration after the arrest of three individuals responsible for a missile attack targeting the US embassy. This was a rare occasion in which Sudanese arrested the perpetrators of violence against Americans.

While Al-Sudani has criticized the recent US retaliatory strikes in Iraq, he does not appear to hold the same disdain for the Popular Mobilization Forces, agents of the state who have targeted US military and civilian personnel for many years, claiming that their presence conflicts with Baghdad’s wishes. These unprovoked attacks carried out by the Popular Mobilization Forces are, at a minimum, crimes under Iraqi law – if not violations of Iraqi sovereignty to the point that the militias are accountable to Iran. Despite the government’s reluctance to act – due to fear of political cost or Iranian retaliation – the killers of American soldiers are not immune from retaliation simply because they reside on Iraqi soil with impunity by local authorities.

The United States has shed a great deal of blood and devoted many resources to Iraq, and the status of the Iraqi state remains of great interest to Washington. Last February, the Iraqi Council of Representatives set a date to hold a session to vote on the continued American presence, but it did not achieve a quorum for the meeting. Baghdad may eventually decide that it is time for the United States and the coalition to leave. Iraq can make this decision and manage the continuing threat posed by ISIS on its own. Even if the Sudanese government does not expel the coalition forces, it is clear that a large US military presence has become unacceptable.

Twenty years after the invasion of Iraq, it is time for the Biden administration to start thinking about how best to reduce the US military footprint in Iraq. The United States is not taking advantage of its presence in Iraq to repel the expansion of Iranian influence in Baghdad or to cut the line of communication between Tehran and its proxy militia, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. While US forces in Iraqi Kurdistan serve as a key link in logistical support to anti-ISIS forces in Syria, this presence may also no longer be considered necessary if Washington withdraws its small military contingent from Syria. Even if US forces remain in Syria, Washington may be able to maintain a small presence in the Kurdish region of Iraq to support this counterterrorism mission.

Outside the framework of the military unit in Kurdistan, the benefits of continued American military deployment in Iraq are declining more and more. To be sure, a hasty and chaotic withdrawal from Iraq, similar to what happened in Afghanistan, would harm the credibility of the United States. The same applies to leaving under fire. Leaving Iraq could also reinforce the harmful regional perception that the United States is withdrawing militarily as it turns toward Asia. Worse still, the massive US embassy in Baghdad would be more vulnerable to attack in the absence of US forces nearby, a very real concern given the Iraqi government’s tendency to ignore its obligation under the Geneva Convention to defend diplomatic facilities.

But the coalition operation against ISIS in Iraq has largely been completed, and the continued presence of American forces does not contribute to preventing the progress that Iran is making towards imposing its hegemony over Iraq. At the same time, US forces stationed there provide Iran and its local client militias with targets they can attack up close — or perhaps more accurately, hostages in all but name. A lighter, unified footprint could help reduce this threat, while maintaining sufficient capabilities if the Iraqi Army chooses to continue bilateral military engagement, which includes routine joint exercises.

Ironically, moving the majority of US forces out of danger in Iraq may improve Washington’s standing in the eyes of the Iranian-dominated Iraqi government — especially if the forces remain in Kurdistan, where the United States is still welcome. When Washington is freed from concerns about protecting its forces, it will have greater scope to communicate with Iraq about its relationship with Iran, sanctions violations, and rampant corruption. While Iraq’s stability and sovereignty remain a priority for the United States, Washington will have to rely on other tools of national power – especially economic influence – if it wants to support its interests in Iraq in the next stage. Phasing out or reducing the long-standing US troop presence does not mean an end to US military engagement in Iraq, a US withdrawal from the region, or acquiescence to Iranian hegemony in the region.

David Schenker