For months, Iraq has been gripped by regular protests calling for the end of foreign influence in the country. For some, this means Iranian meddling, while others want a withdrawal of US forces.
Such demands gained momentum after last month's assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Following his death, Iraq's parliament – without the presence of Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers – passed a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of US forces. Last week, pro-Iranian groups staged a large-scale rally calling for US troops to leave.
Despite Washington’s insistence that its forces will stay put, one should not discount the possibility of a withdrawal, especially as the US is in an election year. It is conceivable that President Donald Trump could seek to bolster his popularity by withdrawing, citing his pledge to disengage from costly overseas adventures.
However, such a move would be detrimental to US strategic interests in the region and run counter to the wishes of many Iraqis who fear Iranian domination or the resurgence of ISIS.
A US withdrawal would also amount to a second betrayal by the Trump administration of the Kurds. The first was in October 2019 when, after a telephone conversation with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr Trump essentially gave Ankara the green light to invade the Kurdish-held parts of Syria.
There are many Iraqis who fear the consequences of a US withdrawal, not least the Kurds, most of whom – but certainly not all – live within the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which is administered from Erbil by the Kurdistan Region Government.
The US enjoys considerable goodwill among Iraqi Kurds who are still grateful for Washington’s overthrowing of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Together with his Baathist henchmen, Hussein perpetrated a genocide against the Kurds during the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were murdered and thousands of villages were destroyed.
Today, Iraqi Kurdistan faces many internal challenges, not least corruption and the factional nature of Kurdish politics that often undermines democratic institutions. However, Iraqi Kurdistan has proved itself to be one of the most productive, dynamic and stable areas of not just Iraq but the broader region as well.
The KRG though remains locked in a struggle with Baghdad. According to the Iraqi constitution, Erbil should receive 17 per cent of the national budget. However, Baghdad often resists handing over the funds in an attempt to stymie the growth of the Kurdish region. Erbil responded by striking its own energy deals, making Baghdad even more reluctant to hand over the money.
What is more, there remains uncertainty about Iraq’s disputed territories that include the oil-rich and ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, which has historical significance for the Kurds. In 2014, ISIS took over vast territory to the north of Iraq including Kirkuk and Mosul. However, after mounting a defence of Erbil, Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, went on the offensive and captured Kirkuk as well as other areas within the disputed territories.
In 2017, the KRG held a referendum on whether or not to declare independence from Iraq. This was despite opposition from the international community, and most vehemently by Turkey, Iran and Baghdad. In response to the referendum – which Kurds overwhelmingly voted in favour of independence – Turkey made common cause with Tehran and Baghdad, handing over border controls to Iraqi forces. The KRG soon found itself isolated, with Turkey and Iran ceasing commercial flights to and from Iraqi Kurdistan and shutting off their airspace. To make matters worse for Erbil, Iraqi forces – backed by pro-Iranian militias – seized control of Kirkuk and other parts of the disputed zones.
A US withdrawal from Iraq would significantly weaken the Kurds' hands against Baghdad. Not only would the ethnically mixed disputed zones be permanently controlled by pro-Iranian forces, but Baghdad might also use the opportunity to permanently stop giving the KRG its share of the national budget. Although less likely, it is still conceivable that with the support of Turkey and Iran – both of which view Kurdish autonomy with suspicion – Baghdad might want to assert its dominance over the entire Kurdish region.
When thinking about withdrawing forces, Washington should consider that it risks losing the goodwill of the KRG, which offers the US important strategic benefits. The KRG co-operates with Washington in matters pertaining to counterterrorism. The Kurds are a willing partner to fight ISIS if the terror group were to resurface. The US also uses Kurdish bases, and the continued access to them could become increasingly important as they offer the US a potential alternative to those in Turkey whose government seems determined to pivot from its traditional allies in the West.
At least for now, the Trump administration should resist withdrawing forces from Iraq. Not only do they prevent Iran from dominating the region or ISIS from resurfacing, but there are many Iraqis – Kurds and Arabs alike – who do not want the US to leave just yet, and the importance of their goodwill should not be overlooked.
Simon Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London