Iraqi sovereignty is not just about troop presence

Parliament has called on foreign forces to pull out from the country after Qassem Suleimani's killing, sparking fears of more Iranian meddling and an ISIS resurgence

A member of Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary network stands guard during a symbolic funeral procession for the network's deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in the southern city of Basra, on January 4, 2020. Tens of thousands of Iraqis mourned al-Muhandis and Iran's Major General Qasem Soleimani  along with eight others, killed in a US drone attack yesterday which sparked fears of a regional proxy war between Washington and Tehran. / AFP / Hussein FALEH
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As US-Iran tensions continue to rise, the eyes of the world are set on Iraq, where parliament has called on its government to expel all foreign troops, including more than 5,000 American forces. Sunday’s decision was Iraq’s response to the killing of top Iranian military chief Qassem Suleimani in a US airstrike on his convoy near Baghdad airport.

The non-binding resolution must now be sent back to Cabinet for it to become a law - although Iraq’s current caretaker government cannot pass legislation. The controversial, but largely symbolic decision was adopted in surreal circumstances. The session was boycotted by nearly half of all Iraqis parliamentarians and led by caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, a man who had resigned from his position last month. He was largely discredited among Iraqi youth for overseeing a ruthless crackdown that took the lives of hundreds of unarmed protesters - many of whom died at the hands of pro-Iranian militias represented in parliament.

Suleimani’s assassination has backed Iraq into a corner and forced politicians to once again pick a side. Many Iraqis, including young protesters, have no tears for a man responsible for the death and suffering of their people. But Iranian proxies in the country have used the escalation to deflect attention from the legitimate demands of demonstrators who have been calling for clean, non-sectarian leadership and an end to foreign meddling in their country for months. The Tehran-backed militias, as well as followers of populist cleric Muqtada Al Sadr, have clearly sided with the Iranian leadership, which has vowed to take revenge.

Mr Al Sadr has called for the revival of the Mahdi Army, a militia that fought against American troops at a time when the US was an occupying force in Iraq. Some of its elements were responsible for the kidnapping and killing of Iraqi citizens. Iran-aligned groups have pushed the narrative that they are resisting American “occupation”, but this could not be farther from the truth. American troops in Iraq have gone there at the request of the government, to assist the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Their withdrawal en masse would be nothing short of a gift for the extremists, who are regrouping in parts of the country and neighbouring Syria.

The parties that voted for foreign troops to leave are quick to defend Iraqi sovereignty against US interference but they have repeatedly failed to condemn Iran’s grip on some of their militias, as well as attacks targeting the Iraqi military. Moments after parliament adjourned, rockets fell on an Iraqi base close to the US embassy in Baghdad, wounding several civilians.

US forces in Iraq can act as a deterrent for Iran and extremists

The airstrike happened two days after Iranian-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah warned Iraqi forces to steer clear of “US bases”. Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the former leader of this militia, was among those who died in the airstrike targeting Suleimani.

Despite their relatively low numbers, US forces in Iraq can act as a deterrent for Iran and extremists. Their departure could empower Tehran to further entrench itself in Iraq and clamp down even more brutally on the ongoing protests in Baghdad and Iraq’s south. The Obama administration celebrated pulling US troops largely out of Iraq, only to have to return with a larger number of forces in 2014 to fight ISIS. The best way to stop foreign meddling is to bolster the Iraqi state and ensure a workable, national political process. The voices of millions of Iraqis who have been calling for good governance and an end to foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs must prevail. The alternative would be disastrous for Iraq and the region.