Iraq Prepares to Evict U.S. Troops
Pro-Iran factions are pushing for the move just as the Islamic State is starting to hit back.
Momentum is building among deputies in the Iraqi parliament to oust U.S. troops entirely from the country—an outcome that would leave Iraq’s political future in the hands of neighboring Iran and leave its citizens more vulnerable to the Islamic State.
Today, the United States fields an estimated 5,200 troops in Iraq. They are there as part of a security agreement with the Iraqi government to advise, assist, and support that country’s troops in the fight against the Islamic State. But the Iraqi parliament is expected to vote soon on draft laws calling for a full withdrawal. For now, things don’t look good for the troops.
For one, there’s a strong union of Iranian and Iranian-backed military and political powers that is actively trying to push the United States out. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Qassem Suleimani, who is close to the Fatah Iraqi political faction, is determined to do so. The party of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is usually at odds with Suleimani but is in agreement on this issue, has said all foreign troops must go, not just the Americans.
The purported reason? More sovereignty. Fadhil Jabr Shnein, a deputy in the Iraqi parliament and a member of a leading pro-Iranian parliamentary group—Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the paramilitary arm of which fought in Syria to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power—said in an early March interview with the Arabic publication Al-Etejah Press, “There is a broad consensus among the various political blocs and national forces to eject foreign presence in all forms.” However, Shnein’s reference to “foreign” forces likely does not include Iranian forces, as his coalition is loyal to Iran.
The Shiite commanders of the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are likewise pushing for a U.S. withdrawal. Qais al-Khazali, a virulently anti-American Shiite commander who is close to Suleimani, even threatened U.S. troops on his Twitter account. He claimed the U.S. presence was intended to serve Israel and not Iraq, and he vowed to target U.S. troops if they do not leave the country. His threats should be taken seriously. The Popular Mobilization Forces are practically as powerful as the regular military. Although many fighters are on the Iraqi government payroll, they operate outside Bagdad’s control and possess their own weapons.
Beyond the various pro-Iranian forces in Iraq, the Trump administration is also at least partly responsible for putting U.S. troop expulsion at the top of Baghdad’s agenda. In late December 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with U.S. troops at Al Asad military base provoked outrage among Iraqi politicians and citizens because he did not follow protocol and announce his visit ahead of time—a move that some Iraqis felt was a violation of their sovereignty. Then, in early February, he announced that he wanted U.S. troops to remain in Iraq to watch Iran, setting off a diplomatic firestorm in Baghdad.
All this has compelled even pro-U.S. politicians to denounce the presence of American troops. Iraq’s President Barham Salih, a longtime diplomat in Washington, has publicly supported a more minimal U.S. presence, for example, although Iraqi security and political sources say he is actually against a U.S. withdrawal. In early March, Salih said, “We are surprised by the statements made by the U.S. president on the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Trump did not ask us to keep U.S. troops to watch Iran.” This was an indication of the high pressure Salih is likely under to question the United States’ presence in his country.
Although popular opinion seems to be turning against the United States, there are still some factions that want it to stay. Baghdad may yet reach a compromise on the troops. Assuming they do in fact support a continued U.S. presence, for example, the Iraqi prime minister and president could still stall for a variety of reasons, although neither have veto power over parliamentary decisions. Moreover, among Iraq’s Shiite population, popular sentiment is turning increasingly against Iran, according to a recent survey conducted by Munqith al-Dagher, who runs a polling agency in Iraq. Favorable Iraqi Shiite attitudes toward Iran fell from 88 percent in 2015 to 47 percent in 2018, according to Dagher’s polling. This shifting sentiment should empower the Iraqi government to create distance with Iran, something Iranian loyalists have so far managed to head off.
While there is broad agreement among those calling for the United States to withdraw, there is little clarity about what a troop withdrawal would mean in practical terms. The other members of the coalition fighting the Islamic State might decide to leave if the United States is forced to do so. And if other states withdraw as well, the Iraqi security forces, which need training and technical support, would be unlikely to combat the Islamic State on their own. It is also unclear whether the hypothetical legislation will allow U.S. troops to remain on the Iraqi-Syrian border to try to prevent Islamic State fighters from crossing into Iraq from Syria. If it doesn’t, the Iraqi military would have to take on the fight without U.S. air cover.
And that bodes ill for the country. Over the last year, the Islamic State has made a comeback, firstly with attacks in remote areas of the country and more recently on the outskirts of urban centers, such as Baghdad. As part of the jihadi group’s resurgence, it is extorting the same Sunni Iraqi communities from which it found support in 2014 and 2015. The majority of fighters and supporters are Iraqi—a major challenge for the state going forward, because they are not foreigners who can be sent away.
Stepped-up Iranian domination would be in neither Iraq’s interest nor that of the United States. In early March, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Iraq—the first such visit by an Iranian president in many years, a sign of Iran’s intentions to expand economic cooperation with the country. The Iranians want to use the Iraqi market to compensate for the vast economic downturn that has followed renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran. The much-publicized trip demonstrates that the Iraqi government is stuck in the middle. Iraq relies on Iran for goods and electricity supplies, so cutting ties is not only politically unlikely but also impossible.
While legislative deal-making continues, the Iraqi parliamentarians could perhaps agree to a compromise on troop withdrawal if an attractive offer were made by Washington or U.S.- aligned political Iraqi factions. However, the question remains as to whether Iraq is more worried about the Islamic State—and could thus countenance a continuing U.S. presence—or more interested in keeping Iran happy. Unless the more moderate forces within the parliament and the government at large are willing to take a risk, it is likely some form of legislation will be approved to limit, if not expel, the United States.
Geneive Abdo is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Twitter: @AbdoGeneive