The Iraq Report: US troops will remain in Iraq. The 'withdrawal' is just a rebrand

7 min read
16 December, 2021

Last Thursday, The United States officially announced that it had ended its combat mission in Iraq, more than seven years after it intervened militarily to lead the pushback against the Islamic State group.

While much fanfare has been made about this by the Iraqi government, which is keen to be perceived as being sovereign and independent, the reality is that American troops remain in Iraq and this could be a flashpoint for tensions with militant groups in the near future. 

Similarly, the fallout from multiple US interventions on Iraqi soil over a period of more than three decades continues, as Iraqis see their country subjected to militia rule, neighbouring powers intervening in their affairs and conducting military operations seemingly at will, and domestic politics in a state of perpetual chaos and instability. 

While the formalities of the US’ involvement in Iraq have changed, it is likely that this is mere window dressing and that Washington has other ideas about its engagement with Baghdad. 

"The US intervention was decisive and coordinated with its apparent regional nemesis Iran, both of whom had a vested interest in keeping the Iraqi state alive, if only on life support"

US troops end combat mission after more than seven years  

The United States formally ended its combat mission in Iraq last week and will revert to a training and advisory role, serving as an end to this chapter of war in Iraq and perhaps the beginning of a new one. 

On 15 June 2014, then-US President Barack Obama ordered the United States military to conduct extensive airstrikes in Iraq, less than three years after he had ordered his armed forces to “withdraw” from the country that his predecessor, George W. Bush, had invaded in 2003. 

At that time, the target was the Islamic State group (IS), which had – alongside other Iraqi militants IS later betrayed – conquered a third of the fragile country in a matter of months, threatening both Baghdad and the capital of the Kurdistan region, Erbil. 

The US intervention was decisive and coordinated with its apparent regional nemesis Iran, both of whom had a vested interest in keeping the Iraqi state alive, if only on life support. IS was not only halted, but was pushed back and eventually defeated, culminating in the recapture of Mosul in 2017. 

The US has engaged in multiple military interventions on Iraqi soil over a period of more than three decades. [Getty]

Since then, and until last week, the US maintained its troops under the justification that IS cells still needed to be fought. The American military presence in Iraq, in conjunction with the rise of Donald Trump and regional geopolitical disputes relating to Iran’s nuclear programme, positioned Iraq as a flashpoint between Washington and Tehran. 

To pressure the Trump administration into returning to the nuclear deal it abandoned in 2018, Iran used its Iraqi Shia proxies predominantly from factions associated with the Popular Mobilisation Forces – an umbrella group of mostly Shia militias – to launch attacks on US troops, installations, and economic interests. 

This escalation led to the storming of the US embassy as 2019 closed out, an action that enraged President Trump to such a degree that he ordered the unprecedented assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani by drone strike. 

Soleimani was not only the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, but he also had effectively served as the point man for Iran’s regional ambitions for two decades. His death sent shockwaves not only through Iran, but also on the patronage networks of Shia militias and politicians he had cultivated in the post-Saddam era. 

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While Soleimani’s death represented a grievous blow to Iran, it did not stop Shia militant attacks against American targets, even after incumbent President Joe Biden took office with the promise of returning to the nuclear accords. Shia militants have demanded US troops evacuate Iraq by the end of the year or else face war. 

It was in light of this, as well as increasing American isolationism and recalibration towards China and the Pacific, that the joint US-Iraqi strategic dialogue took place earlier this year, which set yet another “final” timetable for an end to US operations by 31 December. 

However, while formal combat operations have ended, America’s military presence in Iraq has merely shifted posture from kinetic operations to one of “advising, assisting and enabling” the Iraqi military, as recently confirmed by Biden’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator, Brett McGurk. 

Clearly, this falls short of what was expected by Iran and its militias and if the “empty shell” nuclear deal currently being renegotiated falls through, there is a high possibility that Tehran will resume its proxy attacks against Washington’s interests, including the troops that remain in Iraq. 

"In contemporary Iraq, democracy has become a byword for corruption, mismanagement, and subservience to foreign powers and their whims"

Fallout of US military adventures plague Iraq 

While the geopolitical effects of American interventionism are clear to see, it is the domestic effects that often go under-reported or are not given sufficient analysis. This is particularly the case when state-society relations are examined, relations that have remained strained and fraught for almost two decades. 

Domestically, Iraq has had a fragile political system ever since the 2003 invasion. While the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was oppressive, it commanded a certain level of respect as it was viewed as indigenous and relatable to the Iraqis. In this way, Saddam was able to recruit into the Iraqi military and motivate men to fight Iran in the 1980s. 

In contemporary Iraq, however, democracy has become a byword for corruption, mismanagement, and subservience to foreign powers and their whims. 

Iraq has consistently ranked amongst the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. This corruption has led to continuous problems with nepotism, entire ministries being pumped for money by patronage networks, and incessant problems with water and power supplies

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Involvement in Iraq is not limited to the US and Iran. Neighbouring Turkey, for instance, has launched a succession of military adventures into northern Iraq in order to strike at its erstwhile foe, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. 

Earlier this month, Turkey used a drone strike to assassinate Marwan Badal, the Yazidi commander of the Sinjar Resistance Units (better known as the YBS), a group that has strong links to both the PKK and Iran. Seemingly in retaliation, three Turkish soldiers were then killed days later by the PKK in northern Iraq. 

While Baghdad makes the occasional statements of discontent at Turkish interventions within its borders, it does nothing else to prevent them simply because it lacks the power to. This inability to monopolise and control violence within its own borders – one of the fundamental definitions of a state – has led Iraqis to lose faith in their government. 

A lack of faith in the capabilities of government due to rampant corruption and issues with sovereignty also inevitably leads to a lack of faith in the process by which these governments come to power. 

Employees of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission conduct a partial manual recount of votes for October's contested parliamentary elections. [Getty]

While much was promised to Iraqis in terms of democracy finally granting them freedom from oppression, their lived reality since 2003 has been one of spiralling violence, insecurity, a lack of prosperity, and the perception that foreign powers decide who sits in the driving seat, irrespective of what the Iraqi people vote for. 

This was the case when former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was selected by the US and Iran as a mutually acceptable candidate, followed by each of his successors from Haidar al-Abadi, Adel Abdul Mahdi, and incumbent Mustafa al-Kadhimi – all of whom were installed in power without any direct input from the electorate. 

Even now, two months after the last election that saw a miserly 40 percent turnout, a new government has not been formed and the election itself is being placed into doubt by the losing parties who have taken legal actions to declare the vote fraudulent

Similar to Afghanistan, another democratic experiment by the United States, Iraq is on a cliff’s edge, and the slightest instability could send it falling from a dysfunctional democracy into a full-blown civil war. If Washington fully disengages, or if the US decides to confront Iran militarily, then the two main pillars supporting this enterprise will disintegrate and the entire democratic project in Iraq could come crashing down, resulting only in bloody violence.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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