Withdrawal of US forces puts Iraq's security at risk, warn analysts

About 2,500 US troops and several small contingents of other Nato countries are still advising Iraqi military officers

A US soldier looks onto Baghdad from a guardhouse near the International Zone, in May 2021. Getty Images
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The potential withdrawal of US forces from Iraq could leave Baghdad unequipped to deal with deep-rooted security problems, from powerful Iran-backed militias to lingering ISIS terror cells, analysts told The National.

Talks over the withdrawal of US forces are set to begin after both the US and Iraq issued statements on Thursday announcing that the US-Iraq Higher Military Commission would be meeting "in the coming days" to discuss the “transition to an enduring bilateral security partnership between Iraq and the United States.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani has repeatedly called for a managed exit of US troops from Iraq, amid escalating violence between US forces and Iran-linked militias in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which is funded by the Iraqi government.

Mr Al Sudani told the Davos forum this month that Iraq must “reach an understanding on a timeline for concluding the mission of the international advisers” now that ISIS was no longer a threat. He said US air strikes on PMF targets were destabilising Iraq.

Militia attacks on US forces have intensified to unprecedented levels this month, including a ballistic missile attack on Saturday that injured several US soldiers.

The US has retaliated with air strikes on militia targets in a spiralling cycle of violence since the Israel-Gaza war broke out on October 7.

“They're upset about our strikes, but they attacked coalition forces first,” said David Witty, a former US Special Forces officer who worked with Iraqi commandos, and is now an expert on security co-operation.

He said there have been about 150 attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria since October and described the attacks as “daily”.

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

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

Rise of ISIS

This is not the first time the Iraqi government has asked US troops to depart. In 2009, Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki asked US forces to leave within three years.

The US complied amid long negotiations on a possible training mission, but by 2011 their forces had been withdrawn. But they were invited back in 2014 in the form of the US-led international coalition against ISIS, which was complemented by a contingent from Nato.

ISIS had surged across the country in 2014, capturing the country's second-largest city of Mosul in June.

Western air support from the coalition, mostly co-ordinated with Iraq's Counter Terrorism Service, was vital in the campaign to recover territory from ISIS. During the fight, the CTS spearheaded most operations, having developed a close relationship with US Special Forces advisers.

Iran-backed militias also fought against ISIS outside of the framework of the coalition.

Since ISIS was largely defeated in 2017, American forces within the coalition have clashed with the Iran-backed militias under the PMF, which includes an array of groups.

Tensions escalated in January 2020 when the US killed the de facto leader of the PMF, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, and the architect of Iran's regional network, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general Qassem Suleimani, in an air strike on Baghdad.

In the aftermath of the strike, then-prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi sided with Iraqi MPs and voted to remove American forces.

But Mr Mahdi resigned amid a bloody crackdown on protests and was succeeded by prime minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who allowed the coalition mission to continue.

However, the balance of power has since shifted, with the current Prime Minister Mr Al Sudani seen as much closer to Tehran, strengthening calls by Iran-backed militias and parties for the US to leave.

Will ISIS re-emerge?

Analysts warn history could repeat itself if US troops withdraw again.

After the US withdrawal in 2011, Iraqi forces lost effectiveness due to an increase in corruption, with commanders selling fuel, ammunition and even food for personal gain, as well as falsifying payrolls to salaries.

Iraq struggled to co-ordinate its forces and resupply troops, leading to disaster against ISIS.

Recent coalition reports by a US inspector general warn many of these problems remain, especially with logistics, stoking fears that ISIS or similar groups could experience a resurgence if the US withdrew.

Mr Witty, who worked closely with the CTS that led the fight against ISIS, warned that the coalition's current training of Iraqi forces could be too limited for them to protect the state.

“There’s no contact with the Iraqi Security Forces other than through the MOD and that is pretty discouraging,” he says, describing what the coalition calls an “operational level” effort, focused on overseeing the planning of operations, rather than helping infantry at the sharp end of fighting.

Mr Witty advised that the US should continue training Iraqi forces based on the model of the CTS, which partnered small American and Iraqi units together.

“The lower level is better, you know, and a good example is the CTS, that we're down all the way to the company level. Generally, they did combined operations, there was a platoon size element of Iraqis and maybe a squad size element of Americans going out on missions. They learn by example.”

Mr Witty worries that without constant training, old problems could re-emerge, jeopardising Baghdad's ability to stand up to ISIS, or PMF groups such as Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujaba, who have warned they could overthrow the Iraqi government if requested by Iran.

There is a risk Iraq’s military culture “reverts back to its original self,” Mr Witty warned.

“We saw this happen after 2011. The standards go down, things deteriorate. And that's what I'm particularly worried about, with the CTS and probably what's happening right now with the regular army,” he said.

No end to conflict with Iran

Aside from the threat from ISIS, experts warn that the conflict between the US and Iran in Iraq is unlikely to fade away if US troops withdraw.

“In 2011, when the US last left, Daesh was getting much stronger in Syria and beginning to recover strength in Iraq. This is not the case now: Daesh is not the real threat now: the main risk to Iraqi security is state capture and asset-stripping by Iran-backed militias,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

He warned that the capture of the Iraqi state by the PMF has not only led to a lack of funding for Iraq's CTS but also makes renewed conflict between the US and the PMF likely.

“Everything is happening at the ministerial level for your regular security forces and the Iraqi central government has been infiltrated by the PMF. They're embedded in all the ministries now. Not just actual ministers, but assistant ministers and deputy ministers, they're all guys from the various militias, chosen by the (political coalition) Coordination Framework. This doesn't look good to me, what the Iranians have been able to do,” he says.

In the current Iraqi government budget, funding for the CTS is down 14 per cent, while the PMF budget has doubled.

“We needed to be in federal Iraq to fight Daesh because we had an Iraqi partner, but now there is no partner inside Iraq to fight the main threat – because the militias have taken over the security sector,” Mr Knights says.

Mr Knights also says if Iraq becomes essentially an operating base for the PMF’s regional wars, then the conflict between the US and the militias may well continue, with US forces launching strikes from outside the country.

“The US may be better able to strike, sanction and otherwise damage those militias if it is outside Iraq,” said Mr Knights.

“Iraq may or may not experience fewer air strikes if the coalition is collapsed, because a US President may be less restrained if our forces, and perhaps our embassy, is forced to leave. And that president could be a Republican,” he said.

“Economic stability would definitely worsen in Iraq if the US has no incentive to show restraint regarding the sheltering of Iraqi monies from international lawsuits and if the US rations Iraq’s supply of dollars because terrorist actors are seen to have taken over the country and its finance ministry,” he said.

Mr Knights said bilateral security agreements, such as the one between France and the Iraqi government, might be a way ahead.

“This depends if the withdrawal is a fake withdrawal. Nowadays we have fake resistance (rocket attacks that constantly aim to miss or convoy attacks that hit trucks with no Americans on them). If the change in status is done in a minimal way, very little may change.”

“The same forces might remain but as American and Canadian and French forces, just with bilateral invitation letters to remain.”

Updated: January 26, 2024, 7:59 AM