The decision was made by US President Joe Biden and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi after they met in Washington on Monday. “The security relationship will fully transition to a training, advising, assisting and intelligence-sharing role,” said a joint statement, issued by both countries after what was called a “strategic dialogue.” “There will be no US forces with a combat role in Iraq by December 31, 2021,” it added. The statement also noted that bases used by US personnel were “Iraqi bases and are operating per existing Iraqi laws” and that any international soldiers were there strictly to help in the fight against the extremist group known as the “Islamic State” (IS).
The agreement comes as no surprise to observers and locals, because it is the indirect result of events in January 2020. On January 3 that year, senior Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and a senior Iraqi military leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were killed by a US drone strike as they were leaving Baghdad airport. Both men were senior commanders of the semi-official, Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq. Angered by the extrajudicial assassination on Iraqi soil, local politicians voted later in January to expel all US soldiers. This week’s decision is the result of that non-binding parliamentary vote.
Despite the fanfare with which this conscious uncoupling was announced, this isn’t a wholesale withdrawal of the drastic kind recently experienced in Afghanistan. The decision is more likely to see US troops shuffled around and their roles redefined than any reduction in troop numbers. There are currently around 2,500 US soldiers in the country.
NYT described the new agreement as “a set piece of diplomatic theater,” and Sabereen News, a channel on the Telegram messenger service dedicated to the PMF, exclaimed angrily: “No American soldier will be withdrawn ... their description will be changed on paper!” Sabereen issued several messages saying they would continue to fight US forces, using the hashtag #withdrawal on our terms.” So why all the theatrics? Most likely because ongoing tolerance for the US presence in Iraq is a kind of open secret, something that almost everyone in power tacitly agrees upon but that politicians on all sides won’t talk about publicly.
“Most Iraqi leaders, including those who don’t say it openly, do recognise the importance of having the US there,” Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at London-based policy institute Chatham House, told DW. “And very few Iraqi leaders, including some armed leaders, want the US to completely withdraw and sever ties,” he explains, referring to leaders of the Iran-backed militias thought to be behind ongoing drone attacks on bases used by US troops as well as on US supply convoys.
“More generally, the US also provides cover for much of Western representation in Iraq,” Mansour confirmed. If the US left altogether, it’s likely that other countries like the UK and Germany would follow suit. If that happened, Iraq would become “a pariah state,” Mansour added, “one that’s closed off to the world.”
And this is not something that even Iran — the US’ avowed adversary in Iraq — necessarily wants. Iran also benefits from having neighbouring Iraq open to the world when Iran itself is beset by sanctions and shunned by much of the international community, Mansour noted. “The US forces are seen as creating a balance and deterring Iran,” a senior source inside the Iraqi government told DW; they had to remain anonymous as they did not have permission to speak to media. Iraq’s political system is balanced between its three major demographic groups — Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and the Kurds — and if US forces withdraw altogether, the Sunni Muslims and Kurds worry that Iran-backed Shiite Muslim forces would fill any security vacuum.
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle