9 Apr 2020

Geostrategic repercussions of US troop withdrawal from Iraq: regional rivalries and the impact of COVID-19

Amal Al Breiki

The killing of the Iranian General Commander Qassem Soleimani in a targeted US strike after he visited Iraq to meet Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi for a peace meeting, exponentially increased tensions on the regional and global levels. The incident escalated an already razor-thin peace between the US and Iran, adding to numerous failures since the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and its persistence on efforts to implement the principle of “maximum pressure” on the Iranian economy.

Soleimani’s killing has intensified Iraq’s internal debate on Iranian influence in the country. It has also highlighted Baghdad’s role in the US-Iran schism and the country’s potential future without a US military presence. Given the acute domestic situation in Iraq and its reverberations in the larger region, amid an ongoing global pandemic, this insight discusses the prospects of a US troop withdrawal and potential consequences, in addition to tackling the attitude of different groups within Iraq to such a move as seen through the prism of country’s current socio-political trajectory. The paper also discusses likely uncertainty that would follow a US withdrawal and its short- to medium-term repercussions on the Middle East region.

The dilemma, the killing, and the pandemic

The latest series of unfortunate events that contributed to the deterioration of the already unstable regional status quo confirms the US’s and Iran’s perception of Iraq as a battleground to settle their disputes. They further imply that neither of the two governments understand the varied geopolitical and socio-economic facets of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq. Although the US’s decision to assassinate the Suleimani was intended to deter Iran’s proxies in Iraq, however, the move has arguably backfired. With an escalation of the global Covid-19 health crisis and the refusal of Iran’s proxies to retreat, the US might be forced to alter course in Iraq to reduce the risk of an intensified conflict.

Ever since it invaded Iraq in 2003, the US has sought to rehabilitate Iraq’s governance capacities. The Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) put in place in 2008 defined the joint efforts needed to rebuild the country. Though the agreement was beneficial, it also underscored the efforts being security-oriented rather than fundamental and inclusive of the country’s crucial political, socio-economic elements. Post-2011, the US’s apparent lack of strategy toward Iraq has been evident in President Donald Trump’s persistence on focusing on Iranian proxies’ provocations as a justification for a deterrence policy. As a consequence, Washington’s strategy within Iraq primarily concerns anti-terrorist and anti-extremist efforts, which, in turn, overshadows any foreign policy nuance of the US’ approach to Iraq.

Therefore, the repercussions of the Iranian commander’s killing have brought the US-Iraqi strained relations to a breaking point. To Iraqis, US policy has returned to a hostile and non-pragmatic approach, thereby aggravating the level of mistrust between the two nations further. Moreover, the US’s refusal to adhere to Iraq’s decision to withdraw US troops challenges the legality of its presence. The current discord implies that the US is acting against the sovereign will of Iraq, further undermining the domestic legitimacy of the country’s already tainted politicians by openly circumventing their directives.

Moreover, President Trump’s explicit retaliatory threats against Iraq’s economy only worked to exacerbate the resentment among the Iraqi people and further suggested the US’s lack of interest in Iraq beyond a one-sided transactional relationship. A large number of White House officials continue to dismiss the Iraqi government’s resolution and reaffirm the importance of Iraq as a US strategic partner in the region. The uncertainty of Washington’s approach was reflected in the fact that while President Trump, welcomed the prospect of an American troop withdrawal from Iraq, there was strong opposition from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to such a move.

The global Covid-19 pandemic has further complicated the situation. While the Coronavirus outbreak spread, Iranian and the American troops in Iraq sustained a sequence of retaliatory attacks. Despite no reports of confirmed cases of Covid-19 among American troops in Iraq, some personnel have shown symptoms and have been kept in isolation as the US remains concerned that the virus will affect its military operations. Moreover, the pandemic has tempered the US’s reaction to Iran’s strikes as American officials debate their options in the face of a domestic recession and likely intensified Iraqi resentment if the tit-for-tat conflict between the US and Iran were to continue.

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A problematic withdrawal

After the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Washington’s policy evolved to play a more supportive, constructive role in the country. With the formation of the Global Coalition against ISIS in 2014, the boundaries of the US role were clearly established for the Iraqi government and its people. However, in reality, this strategy has been gradually diverted from its initial goal.

The Iraqi President Barham Salih’s statement during his visit to Washington that the US and the rest of the world should note that Iraq was not to be used as a launching pad against its neighbors anticipated the problems that would emerge. The Soleimani assassination triggered an uproar in the Iraqi Parliament, with Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi calling on the Parliament to take immediate action. The Prime Minister argued that the US has committed a serious breach of sovereignty and betrayed the US-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA). Shortly after, in an unprecedented move, the Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for the eviction of 5,200 US troops and any other foreign forces from Iraq. The resolution went to the extent to which some Iraqi leaders perceived Iran as an ally rather than the US, which underscores Washington’s deteriorating stance in the country.

It is noteworthy, however, that the US troops’ presence in Iraq, an answer to the Iraqi government’s request in 2014 to help defeat ISIS, has been based on a voluntary agreement rather than a formal treaty. Further complicating the issue is the Iraqi parliament’s lack of authority to carry out the resolution. The outcry of the Iraqi people on the streets includes a protest against its incapability to uphold the resolution. A wave of popular protests across Iraq in October 2019 served to pressure the government and Iraqi officials to take action and stabilize the country through political concessions.

While the US-Iraq relations can be described as rocky at best in the past few years, the Iraqi government took a firmer and more politicized stance against the US following its recent strategic adjustment. However, the decision raises questions regarding who the bill is truly serving at a time when the American forces’ presence in Iraq is vital to securing the country in the face of prospects of ISIS re-emerging and an exponentially growing Iranian political and military influence.

Moreover, as anti-American sentiments intensified in Iraq in recent months, the US emptied its embassy and called for its citizens to return home. Therefore, an urgent re-examination of Washington’s foreign policy and geo-strategic approach toward Iraq as an entity separate from the currently strained US-Iran relations is essential. The Iraqi parliament’s resolution was strongly supported by Shiite parties, while more than 150 Sunni and Kurdish among the 328 legislators abstained from the vote. Many political factions nevertheless fear a withdrawal of US military aid and the resurgence of ISIS leading to a return to the strife that has debilitated Iraq for many years.

Ethnic groups and political interests

Iraq is home to multiple groups that have a political stake in its current and future dispensations, including Sunnis, Kurds, and other minorities. Over the last decades, the country’s deep sectarian and ethnic discord undermined Iraq’s national identity.

The Shiite majority between Iran and Iraq

Iraq’s long history of societal division and political upheaval has allowed Iran to utilize its influence and win the support of Iraq’s Shiite community. Moreover, Iranian proxies have been aggressively operating with exceptional autonomy in Iraq. Thus, Iran’s policy serves a broader strategy seen in Tehran as a geo-political competition for influence within the wider Middle East region.

The recent parliamentary resolution is not the first time that the Iranian-backed parties have united to seek the expulsion of US troops from Iraq. The fact that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Chief of Staff, was killed alongside the Iranian Commander, gave pro-Iranian Shiite groups another incentive to react the way they did. However, it should also be noted that since late 2019, Shiites in the south of Iraq have been protesting fiercely against Iran’s influence in Iraqi domestic affairs.

The killing of Soleimani was a blessing in disguise for Iran, as it diverted the protesters’ attention toward the perceived US occupation. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Shiite denunciation of Iran suggests a desire for autonomy that offers a glimmer of hope for a more independent political future for the country, provided that the current situation stabilizes.

The domestic complicating factor I: The political exclusion of Arab Sunnis

In the recent crisis, the Arab Sunni parties in Iraq felt sidelined by the parliament’s vote to expel foreign troops, early January of this year. Many tried to urge their fellow Shiite party members to reconsider their stance and grasp the devastating impact a complete US withdrawal would have on Sunnis. Understandably, Arab Sunni MPs raised, yet again, the possibility of forming a Sunni semi-autonomous region if US troops end up pulling out, a move which is legally permitted by the Iraqi constitution.

At a time of renewed national division, the Iraqi political scene requires fundamental change. The central government has, for many of its members, failed to accomplish its main task of unifying the Iraqi people and serving them irrespective of their beliefs. An increasing number of Arab Sunni MPs have expressed their concerns about a US withdrawal from Iraq, as their native towns witness the return of ISIS influence, with Qaim, for instance, experiencing cases of kidnapping and assault. Sunnis also fear the likelihood of dominant Iranian influence if other foreign forces in the country withdraw.

The widely-held sentiment among Arab Sunnis toward Qassim Suleimani was naturally antagonistic, to an extent that many applauded the Americans for the commander’s demise. The festering resentment of Arab Sunnis toward Iran and fears of its dominance can be attributed to several factors. Firstly, the exclusion of Arab Sunnis from the country’s main political and military institutions due to Iranian proxies, and growing Shiite dominance of the post-Saddam era, apparently left Arab Sunnis with little choice but to fight back, eventually leading to the growth of Al-Qaeda and later ISIS presence in Iraq.

Secondly, amid rising sectarian and extremists’ chaos, Arab Sunnis remained alienated and vulnerable with a political vacuum to tackle and no centralized military forces, subsequently leading the US to bring Arab Sunnis under their protection, a move described by Shiite leaders as appeasement. While Sunnis were reintegrated into the parliament and the military years later, they remain at risk of discrimination depending on each elected Shiite-dominated administration.

To that extent, the Arab Sunnis in Iraq have struggled to find an appropriate political avenue to voice their reservations toward Iran in a manner that is conducive for political dialogue. Even within the current protests across Iraq, the Arab Sunni role has been rather marginal, partially due to fear of reprisal. Sunnis have often been equated with ISIS fighters and treated as such by the Shiite majority. In Anbar, Arab Sunnis cautiously expressed their concern about the US forces withdrawal as their towns became more vulnerable to reemerging threats. They hesitantly showed their support for the recent protests across the country without actively participating to avoid any accusation of treason or conspiring with foreign powers. The proposal of an independent Arab Sunni region has been welcomed by Iraqi Sunnis as they are aware of the stability and prosperity the Kurdish region enjoys.

Overall, Arab Sunnis have been limited by sectarian stigmatization within an Iran-backed political monopoly that often had a severe impact on their population’s welfare. Concerning their prospects, the Arab Sunni population in Iraq is yet to formulate a stable future for themselves, but certainly, without the US’s protective umbrella, they would appear to be highly vulnerable.

Domestic complicating factor II: Kurds against ISIS in a triangle of threats

The US-Kurdish relations have been historically collaborative with few political adversaries disturbing the relationship that goes back to the US’s funding of Kurdish Peshmerga in the 1970s. In the post-Saddam era, the US supported the Kurds in their struggle to self-governance but has not given a clear commitment to their independence. As a result, it is important to note the US’s shifting approach and its contingent support explain Iraqi Kurds’ reluctant trust in the Americans.

Given the current political trajectory within the country, Iraqi Kurds cannot afford the US troop withdrawal, with the pressure of ISIS looming and Iraq, Iran and Turkey seeking to thwart any moves toward greater Kurdish autonomy. As the Kurdish MPs have urged their Arab Sunni fellows to sit out the foreign troop’s withdrawal vote, they found themselves in a dilemma. Masoud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President, affirmed the Kurds’ position as peacemakers and mediators between Baghdad and Washington. Given this approach, Kurds’ geo-political status in the region needs to take a non-partisan stance, albeit, both the US and Iran are weighing on them to pick a side.

Iraqi Kurds have only begun to recover from the destructive years of combat with ISIS and the US troop withdrawal would put them in jeopardy. Despite KRG’s self-reliance, they cannot withstand ISIS resurgence on their own. Moreover, Iraqi Kurds have relied on the US for diplomatic as well as military support. Although Turkey enjoys good economic relations with the KRG, it remains cautious of its political endeavors. Iraqi Kurdish separatism is viewed by Iran and Turkey as a potential rallying focus for Kurdish minorities across the region with the threat that their host states would be undermined.

With the US relocating its forces to other parts of Iraq and beyond, Iran and Turkey are growing fearful of strengthened Iraqi Kurdish-US relations. Many interpreted the recent Iranian-sponsored attacks on American bases in Kirkuk and near Erbil International Airport as a message to the Kurds rather than the Americans. This isn’t a new policy departure, as Iran has covertly interfered with KRG’s internal politics in the past. Good relations between Erbil and Washington bring credibility and legitimacy for Iraqi Kurds and perhaps a future opportunity to achieve enhanced quasi-independence at some point.

The fallout of the 2017 Kurdish referendum, ruled invalid by Iraq’s Supreme Court, resulted in the seizure of Kirkuk by Iranian-backed Iraqi forces taking control of KRG’s main source of revenues. Moreover, the Iraqi Parliament discussed constitutional reforms in 2019, leaving Iraqi Kurds to ponder their future. Therefore, Iraqi Kurds’ are yet to reach stable grounds internally and externally, and without the US aid and protection, threats to their autonomy are only likely to rise.

The impact of the Coronavirus crisis

With the current political crisis and nation-wide anti-Iranian protests in Iraq, the situation has been compounded by the threat of Covid-19. Although the Iranian regime has been inundated by the recent wave of the global pandemic with several of their key leaders, including two vice presidents and a senior advisor to the Supreme Leader among the dead, recent aggression against US bases has shown that a health crisis will not stop Iran’s pursuit of its goals in Iraq. The Iranian regime’s reckless attacks can be seen as an attempted diversion given political division and social unrest in Iran.

With Covid-19 paralyzing the struggling Iranian economy and overwhelming its healthcare sector, Iran and its proxies might find it best to reconsider their hostile approach toward the US. However, in the case of Iran deciding to reduce its interventions in Iraq, there is no guarantee that its proxies will fall in line given the evidence that Shiites in southern Iraq are prepared to pursue their agendas.

In Iraq itself, there has been some dispute over the extent of coronavirus infections and fatalities among the general population. While the Baghdad government has confirmed 772, other international sources suggest that the real number is anywhere between 3,000 and 9,000. In its efforts to tackle the pandemic, the Iraqi government has received aid from several countries, including Chinese assistance to build a new PCR (polymerase chain reaction) laboratory in Baghdad with nucleic acid test kits and other equipment capable of conducting up to some 1,000 infection tests per day.

Regarding foreign forces, more than 2,000 European troops are currently present in Iraq, as part of the 2014 global coalition to fight ISIS. While some European governments have actively considered withdrawing their forces in response to the recent unrest, others have urged the Iraqi government to allow their troops to stay. Moreover, members of the coalition have collectively called for de-escalation and sought to use their diplomatic influence to achieve this. However, the coronavirus outbreak has led some coalition members to scale down their activities in Iraq and withdrew their forces temporarily.

Conclusion

Iraq’s resolution to expel the US and other foreign troops demonstrated the nation’s right to its sovereignty. However, it undoubtedly speaks volumes of the disunited governments that fear of the consequences of such a decision qualifies nationalist support and threatens to reopen sectarian and ethnic divisions. While the US troops redeploy from small but essential bases and the coalition forces aim to reduce their footprint, ISIS has been actively regrouping and Iran has shown no sign of being diverted from its quest to increase its influence in Iraq at the expense of the US and its allies.

As the number of Covid-19 cases grows in Iraq, the national government is confronted with a major threat that may exacerbate the instability that already exists. While it struggles with political dilemmas, Iraq is faced with a growing agenda of socio-economic and political problems to tackle. Moreover, marginalized groups such as the Kurds and Arab Sunni may seek to distance themselves from the central authority in Baghdad. At the same time, the US currently appears to lack a strategy and seems oblivious to the dangers their withdrawal will unleash in Iraq and subsequently the region.

If the political instability is to be resolved, the Iraqi government has to commit and brace itself for the aftershock of a crippling global pandemic and mitigate the current pressure for a US withdrawal.

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