US troops are unlikely to withdraw from Iraq in the near future, experts say, as a leaked American letter indicated the US may be considering acquiescing to the Iraqi parliament's push to oust foreign forces from the country.
An American strike on Friday that killed Iranian General Qassem Suleimani has escalated tensions between Washington and Iran. The US said the strike was in response to an immediate threat.
However, the strike may yet backfire on Washington by boosting Tehran’s main objective of removing the US military from its neighbour.
But the Pentagon downplayed the leaked letter which seemed to reveal that US forces were being repositioned in preparation for a possible withdrawal.
“This is a mistake,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told reporters at the Pentagon after the letter was leaked.
The letter, he said, was an unsigned planning draft discussing new deployments and “should not have been released.”
In an emergency session of the Iraqi parliament on Sunday evening, politicians voted in favour of drawing up a resolution to call on the government to remove foreign troops from the country.
"The government commits to revoke its request for assistance from the international coalition fighting ISIS due to the end of military operations in Iraq and the achievement of victory," the resolution said.
But experts believe that US forces are unlikely to withdraw, especially as the move would weaken efforts to stop an ISIS resurgence.
More importantly the Iraqi government is not legally bound by parliament’s resolution, so theoretically, it can be ignored or returned to parliament with endless re-draft, Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore said.
There will be push-back against the idea of a US withdrawal.
“Sunni and Kurdish politicians are not happy with what happened and fear the consolidation of an Iran-leaning Shia majoritarianism taking form,” Mr Haddad said.
A strategic framework agreement signed in 2008 between Washington and Baghdad called for close defense cooperation to deter threats to Iraqi “sovereignty, security and territorial integrity".
US troops currently in Iraq are part of a request for assistance to combat ISIS that was sent in 2014, Sajid Jiyad, managing director of Al Bayan Center, a Baghdad-based think tank said.
“These troops are meant to advise, train and assist Iraqi troops. This request was sent by the Iraqi government and can be revoked at any time,” Mr Jiyad said.
Over 5,000 US troops remain in Iraq, most in an advisory role.
But, parliament issued a decision without clear timelines rather than a binding law withdrawing from the strategic framework agreement or the request for foreign forces assistance, Safwan Al Amin, a lawyer and commentator on Iraqi constitutional matters, said.
“Parliament is supposed to pass laws and not make legislation; the decision needs to be made by the executive,” Mr Al Amin said.
It is important to note that the emergency session was a more of a political signalling exercise than a legal one, Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq initiative at London’s Chatham House, said.
“The US-Iraq relationship is not based on a law that has been passed in parliament but by agreement between Iraqi government and US government,” Mr Mansour said.