Iraq considers risks and rewards of expelling US troops

In recent weeks, tension has grown between Baghdad and Washington after a series of tit-for-tat attacks between American troops and militias in Iraq and Syria

US soldiers at the Qayyarah air base, in Iraq. AFP
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Iraq's government is facing mounting pressure to expel US forces from its territory, amid heightened tensions across the region, but the decision comes with considerable risk.

Washington maintains troops in Iraq under the US-led International Coalition against ISIS. Their presence is opposed by various Iran-backed Shiite political parties and militias, which are highly influential in Iraq.

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war, clashes between US forces and the Iran-backed militias have intensified.

Under pressure from the pro-Tehran political parties and militias, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani has pledged to end the presence of the US-led coalition, which was formed in 2014 to fight ISIS.

Mr Al Sudani has repeatedly condemned the "violation of Iraqi sovereignty" as the US hits Iran-backed militias with air strikes in retaliation for rocket attacks launched against its troops.

“Government is setting the date for the start of the bilateral committee to put arrangements to end the presence of the international coalition forces in Iraq permanently,” the Prime Minister's office said on Friday.

Iraq seeks to 'end presence' of US-led forces in country

Iraq seeks to 'end presence' of US-led forces in country

Potential impact

However, the push to expel US forces has raised concerns about the security, economic, and political implications of the move.

“In light of the challenges the State of Iraq faces, mainly in security, I think this is not realistic,” political analyst Ihsan Al Shammari, who leads the Iraqi Political Thinking Centre think tank in Baghdad, told The National.

Mr Al Sudani’s statement “is a response to the mounting pressures” by the Co-ordination Framework, the biggest parliamentary bloc that includes representatives for militias, Mr Al Shammari said.

“The PM is fully aware that the Coalition withdrawal or even the engagement in negotiations could lead to political, security and economic consequences,” he added.

A senior military official said that Iraq's security forces still needed US support.

“This issue can’t be done quickly and it’s not a matter of a desire of this party or that, but needs first thorough discussion internally to reach a decision on what form of co-operation we need,” a senior military official told The National.

“We all agree that ISIS is gone and not capable as it was in 2014, but its remnants and ideology are still there,” he said. "The security forces need the support from the US forces mainly in intelligent-sharing," he added.

“For the military institution, the presence of the Coalition is vital in training, advisory, arming and guiding in some operations against ISIS remnants mainly the air strikes,” he said.

“In our opinion if we need to go with such plans, we need a gradual disengagement for at least three years to prepare ourselves,” he said, warning that a "sudden departure could disrupt the ongoing efforts to strengthen Iraqi military".

The end of a 20-year presence?

US troops have been stationed in Iraq since 2003, when an American-led an international coalition invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, claiming he was developing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were found and the invasion plunged Iraq into chaos.

The US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, leaving behind a small number of troops to protect its embassy and to train and assist Iraqi forces. At its peak in 2007, the US military presence included 170,000 soldiers.

Foreign troops returned in 2014, when ISIS seized about a third of the country as the US-trained Iraqi security forces melted away.

After the defeat of ISIS in Iraq by the end of 2017, the US started to reduce the number of its troops – from about 5,000 to 2,500 now – along with other countries from the international coalition.

Despite pressure to withdraw US forces since the defeat of ISIS, the Pentagon said on Monday that it had no plans to do so.

"Right now, I'm not aware of any plans [for withdrawal],” Air Force Major General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing in Washington DC.

“We continue to remain very focused on the defeat ISIS mission," Mr Ryder said, adding he was unaware of any notification by Baghdad to the Department of Defence about a decision to remove US troops.

Opposition to the US

Iran-backed Shiite militias and Tehran have called for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq since 2017.

These calls intensified after the US strike killed Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and a prominent Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, in an air strike in Baghdad in 2020.

Two days after the assassination, Shiites in Iraq's parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to expel foreign troops. Sunnis and Kurds have not supported the move.

The outbreak of the Gaza war broke the one-year calm between the militias and US forces that followed the establishment of Mr Al Sudani’s government.

The militias say their attacks against US troops in Iraq and Syria in response to Washington support to Israel in its fight against Hamas.

Three killed in strike on Iran-backed militia base in Baghdad

Three killed in strike on Iran-backed militia base in Baghdad

Since then, drone and missile attacks have wounded several US troops, prompting air strikes against their bases that left more than a dozen fighters killed.

Mr Al Sudani has condemned the militia attacks as terrorist and criminal acts and the US strikes as infringements on Iraq’s sovereignty.

The latest strike on Thursday in the heart of Baghdad killed a senior militia leader. The government for the first time blamed and criticised the US-led International Coalition for conducting the strike.

The day after, Mr Al Sudani renewed his call to remove the Coalition, saying the government was setting the date for the start of the bilateral committee to end the presence of the international coalition forces in Iraq permanently.

That committee, which includes representatives of the military coalition, was established last year but no meetings have been held.

SMS poll seen as appeasement

The government sent out text messages with a survey about the presence of the US-led coalition in the country, in a move insiders said was aimed at appeasing the Iran-backed factions.

“Dear citizen, are you in favour of continuing the mission of the International Coalition in Iraq?” the SMS read.

A sudden departure could disrupt the ongoing efforts to strengthen Iraqi military
Senior military officer says

Three senior government officials - two security officials and one from the Foreign Ministry - told The National that the government has not taken serious steps to remove the coalition so far.

They suggested that the messages were mainly aimed at appeasing the militias and their supporters.

A senior official from the Interior Ministry’s Intelligence office warned that the involvement of Iran-backed militias in “shaping Iraq’s security landscape introduces a new layer of complexity”.

“Their alignment with Tehran’s interests may alter the focus and priorities in the fight against ISIS,” he said.

“This shift could impact the cohesion of anti-terrorism efforts and potentially hinder progress in eradicating the extremist threat,” he said.

Updated: January 17, 2024, 12:34 PM