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US-Iraq dialogue: strategies and controversies over military disengagement

The decision to withdraw US troops from Iraq, which got back on the table in recent days, is still being postponed. On April 7, a new phase of dialogue between the Iraqi government of Mustapha al-Kadhimi and the US - for the first time since Biden took office - resumed the topic of the 2500 US troops still stationed in the country. A presence significantly reduced compared to the past, especially over the last year, but which continues to fuel controversy.

In Iraq, an immediate withdrawal is the desired scenery especially by pro-Iranian political and paramilitary formations, which consider the US presence illegitimate and accuse Al-Kadhimi of being submissive to the American will. However, other political forces – various representatives of the current government, the leaders of the army and the ruling class of the autonomous region of Kurdistan [1] – consider the United States as a key ally for counter-terrorism and, more in general, for maintaining a not-too-biased internal political structure in favour of Iran. Also In the USA, the issue of withdrawal from Iraq is being debated: the military disengagement line represents a functional choice for the American interests for some, a dangerous gamble for others.

Iraq at the heart of US-Iran tensions

After withdrawing from Iraq what was left of its troops in 2011, the United States only intervened in the country three years later, leading the military coalition to fight ISIS. Informal negotiations between the two governments on the new withdrawal phase began at the end of 2019, but the issue became of public interest after the targeted attack on January 3 resulted in the deaths of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards (known as Pasdaran or by the acronym IRGC) and the pro-Iranian Kata'ib Hezbollah militia - of which the two generals murdered were respectively in charge - are considered terrorist organisations by the US [2] and responsible for attacks on American military targets in Iraq. In turn, Iran and paramilitary groups close to Tehran see the US presence in Iraq as a full-fledged illegitimate territorial occupation.

The attack was followed by protests and a resolution passed on January 5 by the Iraqi parliament, which called on the government to commit to the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country [3]. A direct request, therefore, not only to the United States but also to Iran: the skirmishes between the two armies, indeed, contribute to threatening the stability that the country is laboriously trying to achieve. Even the largest Shiite political factions, despite being in favour of a position of international alliance with Iran, do not welcome the excessive influence of the powerful neighbour in internal affairs. Although it is a non-binding act, the document approved by parliament had considerable public resonance precisely because it expresses the opposition of many citizens to let Iraq continue to lend itself as a battleground between the two countries.

After the initial uncertainties, the US-Iraq dialogue on the security dossier finally opened in June. Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief appointed a few weeks earlier by the Parliament, had been presented as a figure capable of curbing foreign interference in Iraq [4]. However, the increase in the number of ISIS attacks between January and June convinced the Iraqi government that a rapid withdrawal of the US military would be counterproductive for its internal security [5]: the process would be gradual and negotiated in order to guarantee to the Iraqi army American support in counter-terrorism operations.

The current situation between doubts and controversy

In a few months, US soldiers in Iraq went from 5200 to 2500. Several representatives and spokesmen of the US institutions said that the decision to reduce the troops reflects the increased level of autonomy achieved by the Iraqi army, which will still continue to receive the necessary support for counter-terrorism operations [6]. However, the widespread discontent with the US army certainly influenced the line taken by the government: in recent months, attacks on US military vehicles and positions in Iraq were a daily occurrence [7], and they continue to be so in these days in which the issue is back in the public eye.

Despite the risks for its troops, the United States are determined to maintain a favourable status quo in Iraq. Not surprisingly, the strategic dialogue of April 7 did not set a date for the withdrawal: the joint Iraq-US statement refers to the “transition” of the mission to a training and assistance role, and of authorisation for the relocation of the remaining combat troops "in time to be established during the next technical dialogues" [8].

The line chosen by the Biden administration - in the wake of what NATO recently expressed [9] – is therefore to remain in Iraq as a support force for counter-terrorism operations, as long as ISIS cells are still active in the country: according to estimates, there would be nearly 8 thousand militiamen on which the organisation can currently count [10]. For Al-Kadhimi, this session of dialogue with the US represents an important stage for the long-awaited return to normality, a necessary act for the Iraqi people, tired of wars and insecurity [11].

The meeting obviously aroused different reactions, more or less critical. Muqtada al-Sadr, the popular Shia leader of a Sadrist movement known for its anti-American positions, claimed to recognise the government of the attempt to put a legal framework for the presence of the “occupying forces”, remarking, however, how these will have to limit their presence over time, to refrain from interfering with the internal affairs and from using the Iraqi territory to launch offensives against the neighbouring States [12]. A much more critical position was expressed by the pro-Iranian militias who, through a statement of their coordinating body, asked on the morning of April 7 to set a date for the withdrawal of US troops, in the implementation of the "people's decision" [13].

Even those in the US who feel it is unnecessary to expose American soldiers to the hostility of militias close to Iran will not be satisfied with the uncertainty regarding the actual withdrawal. As long as ISIS controlled part of the Iraqi territory, the military mission managed to catalyse a certain consensus, but some representatives of the military ranks today consider the threat negligible [14]. However, the path taken by the government does not see withdrawal as a priority: in addition to the feared resurgence of ISIS, the concern to contain Iranian influence probably also weighs. The strategic dialogue of these days appears then as a hint of the official approval of the situation as it evolved since last year. A situation that still remains in a precarious balance, as it is strongly linked to the US relationship with Iran: despite the timid progress after the peaks of tension reached during the Trump presidency, the two countries have divergent interests, which inevitably pass from the Iraqi political scene.

Notes:

[1] H. Sherwani, Iraq still needs coalition support in face of terrorism threat, PM Barzani says, Kurdistan24, 07/04/2021, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/story/24239-Iraq-still-needs-coalition-support-in-face-of-terrorism-threat,-PM-Barzani-says

[2] The Pasdaran were labeled as terrorist organisation in April 2019 by President Trump: it is the first time that a state body is subject to this provision: Revolutionary Guard Corps: US labels Iran force as terrorists, BBC News, 08/04/2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47857140

[3] I. Coles, Iraq, Caught Between Two Allies, Poised to Vote on U.S. Troop Presence, The Wall Street Journal, 05/01/2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/iraq-caught-between-two-allies-poised-to-vote-on-u-s-troop-presence-11578230689

[4] Francesca Salvatore, Chi è Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Inside Over, 23/05/2020, https://it.insideover.com/schede/politica/chi-e-mustafa-al-kadhimi.html

[5] A. J. Rubin, L. Jakes e E. Schmitt, ISIS Attacks Surge in Iraq Amid Debate on U.S. Troop Levels, The New York Times, 10/06/2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/10/world/middleeast/iraq-isis-strategic-dialogue-troops.html

[6] US cites “great sacrifice” as it pulls 2,200 troops out of Iraq, Al Jazeera, 09/09/2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/9/9/us-cites-great-sacrifice-as-it-pulls-2200-troops-out-of-iraq ; J. Garamone, U.S. Completes Troop-Level Drawdown in Afghanistan, Iraq, DOD News, 15/01/2021, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2473884/us-completes-troop-level-drawdown-in-afghanistan-iraq/

[7] For some observers, in order to protect their own troops from the risk of attacks without abandoning the region, the US would have dislocated some military contingents from Iraq to Syria over the past year: E. Hasani, Behind the Curtain: The Transfer of American Troops From Iraq to Syria, 04/03/2021, ISWNews, https://english.iswnews.com/17710/behind-the-curtain-the-transfer-of-american-troops-from-iraq-to-syria/

[8] Joint Statement on the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, Office of the Spokesperson, 07/04/2021, https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-on-the-u-s-iraq-strategic-dialogue/

[9] NATO Secretary General joins meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, 30/03/2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_182894.htm

[10] J. Seldin, Hopes, But No Firm Dates, for US Withdrawal From Iraq, VOA News, 07/04/2021, https://www.voanews.com/usa/hopes-no-firm-dates-us-withdrawal-iraq

[11] https://twitter.com/MAKadhimi/status/1379906458226147329

[12] https://twitter.com/Mu_AlSadr/status/1380208079732621313/photo/1

[13] La resistenza irachena minaccia di colpire le forze di occupazione (trad.), Al Mayadeen, 07/04/2021, https://www.almayadeen.net/news/politics/1469173/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%85%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD%D8%AA%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%A8%D8%B6%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%83%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A9

[14] D. L. Davis, There are no victories left to win for US troops in Iraq and Syria. It's time for Biden to bring them home, Businessinsider, 02/04/2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/time-for-biden-to-bring-troops-home-from-iraq-syria-2021-4?IR=T


Image:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_DVIDSHUB_-_Romanian_Soldiers_Celebrate_Completion_of_Mission_in_Iraq.jpg

Translated by Roberta Sforza


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  • L'Autore

    Laura Morreale

    Laura Morreale, nata nel 1995 in un piccolo centro siciliano, si interessa di mondo arabo-musulmano, migrazioni, diversità e diritti umani.
    Laureata magistrale in Lingue, storia e culture del Mediterraneo e dei Paesi Islamici all’Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”, frequenta attualmente un Master di II livello in Tutela internazionale dei diritti umani presso La Sapienza.
    Durante il suo percorso formativo ha trascorso dei soggiorni di studio presso la University of Manchester (UK) e L’Université de La Manouba (Tunisia). Ha ottenuto una certificazione linguistica di quinto livello in Modern Standard Arabic presso l’Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes di Tunisi.
    Nel 2019 ha svolto un tirocinio di ricerca all’IsMed di Napoli, collaborando alla stesura di un rapporto sulle narrazioni dei fenomeni migratori nella stampa arabofona. Scrive di migrazioni per Melting Pot Europa, e ha svolto esperienze di volontariato in enti che si occupano di migranti e rifugiati. Tra i suoi interessi vi sono anche le tematiche femministe, cui si avvicina come attivista.
    Dal 2020 è parte di Mondo Internazionale, dove collabora come autrice dell’area tematica Framing the World, per le sezioni Terrorismo e sicurezza internazionale e Organizzazioni internazionali. È inoltre Policy Analyst nel progetto MIPP, l’incubatore di Politiche Pubbliche di Mondo Internazionale.

    Laura Morreale, born in 1995 in a small Sicilian town, deals with Arab-Islamic world, migrations, intercultural diversity and human rights. She obtained an honours degree in Languages, History and Cultures of the Mediterranean and Islamic Countries at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”. Currently, she is enrolled in a 2nd level Master in International Protection of Human Rights at the University of Rome "La Sapienza".
    During her academic studies, she spent periods of study abroad at The University of Manchester (UK) and L’Université de La Manouba (Tunisia). She gained a language certification of advanced level (5th) in Modern Standard Arabic at the Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes, in Tunis.
    In 2019 she carried out an internship at IsMed in Naples, where she collaborated to a report about narratives proposed by Arab newspapers on migratory issues. She writes of migrations for the project Melting Pot Europa, and she has volunteered in organisations dealing with migrants and refugees. Moreover, she is interested in feminist issues, which she approached as an activist.
    She is part of Mondo Internazionale since 2020, collaborating as authoress for Framing the World, where she writes in the sections Terrorism and International Security and International Organizations. She is also Policy Analyst in MIPP, the Incubator of Public Policies of Mondo Internazionale.

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