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US Troops in Iraq

May 3, 2019

US Troops in Iraq

US Troops in Iraq

In 2003 an American-led invasion put an end to Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq. At its peak, the US troop levels in Iraq stood at 166,000. Although the US combat mission of helping Iraq with post-invasion state-building and controlling counter-insurgency efforts officially ended in 2010, the American government kept on maintaining a small contingent of troops to train the Iraqi forces.

16 years since US combat operations commenced in 2003, the pressure from domestic Iraqi political groups for an eventual withdrawal of the remaining troops has been mounting lately. Today, there are an estimated 5200 American troops left in Iraq as part of a security agreement with Baghdad to advise, assist, and support the Iraqi troops in their fight against the Islamic State. The two largest political coalitions in parliament, the Sairoon alliance (the coalition supported by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr), and Fatah (comprised of pro-Iran politicians) have been pushing for withdrawal.

Recently, Trump’s unannounced visit to the Al-Asad American base stoked tensions in an already polarized political landscape in Iraq. The problem stemmed from the fact that during this trip, Trump chose not to meet with any Iraqi officials, which was perceived as a lack of respect for local politicians. Moreover, the fact that Trump also said “we spent a fortune building this incredible base. We might as well keep it” drew criticism not only from Iraqi politicians but also from American officials as it went against the announced objective of U.S. policy that troop deployment was merely against the Islamic State.

Earlier in February, Trump had stated that it was important to keep a military presence in Iraq so that Washington could keep an eye on Tehran. Yet, these statements drew the ire of many Iraqi politicians, including the Iraqi president, Barham Salih, who said “We are surprised by the statements made by the American president regarding the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. Trump did not ask us to keep U.S. troops to watch Iran”. An indication of the amount of pressure that the Iraqi president was under although his official stance is supportive of continued US deployment in Iraq.

On March 1st, the Iraqi parliament voted in favor of demanding that the government set a timeline for the withdrawal of foreign troops deployed in the country to help fight the Islamic State. However, ever since, no concrete action has been taken and there isn’t any concrete timeline nor any clear decision about whether the remaining American troops are likely to withdraw from the country.

Possible Consequences of the Withdrawal of American Troops

While pressure has been mounting from the Iraqi political factions for the withdrawal of American troops, one of the most likely consequences of such withdrawal is the possibility of greater Iranian involvement in the domestic politics of Iraq. The pro-Iranian Fatah coalition has been actively propagating for the withdrawal of the remaining American troops. This call is also echoed by the Iran-backed militias called the Popular Mobilization Units. Meanwhile, the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been growing increasingly outspoken about the Iranian presence in Iraq, has also been pushing for the departure of the American and other troops by saying “All foreign troops must go”.

Iran has been contending with its declined popularity in  Iraq amongst Iraqi Shiites, who increasingly view Tehran’s role in Iraq in unfavorable terms. According to a recent poll conducted in 2018, only 47% of Iraqi Shiites viewed Iranian influence in the country in favorable terms. This was a drastic fall from 88% a year earlier. Encouraging the calls for US troop withdrawal from Iraq is supported and funded by Iran under religious and national identity justifications.  Greater socio-political polarization in the country is a likely result of this tug of war between supporters of US military presence who see it as a stabilizing factor, and the other side who is actively lobbying for full withdrawal.

Although the fight against the Islamic State seems to be progressing in favor of the Iraqi army, Iraq’s military still needs and is dependent on technical assistance and training, and stands at risking flare-up in insurgent activity if US assistance ceases.

 

Vahid Yucesoy for iStrategic