About 100,000 residents of the Iraqi town of Jurf al-Nasr have been waiting for more than six years to return to their homes. Some of them have relocated to nearby cities, others have found shelter in northern Iraq.
Jurf al-Nasr, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) southwest of Baghdad, was taken by the Islamic State in 2014 and liberated that year by the Iraqi army and Shi’ite militias. For eight months the security forces worked to clear the city of explosives and mines left by ISIS fighters in the streets and houses.
At the end of that stretch the residents thought they’d be able to come back, but the government decided to close the city and block their return. The main reason was that Jurf al-Nasr had been taken over by Shi’ite militias, headed by the Hezbollah Brigades, and turned into a military base.
Jurf al-Nasr’s fate is no different from that of other cities in northern Iraq’s Sunni provinces, whose residents, having survived the war with the Islamic State, found themselves under the rule of Shi’ite militias. According to Iraqi reports, tens of thousands of houses are now occupied by Shi’ite militias and people brought in to change the region’s demographic balance.
The Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, recently opened negotiations with the militia heads in a bid to let the original residents return to their cities.
The Hezbollah Brigades are one of five militias set up by Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force who was assassinated in January in an American drone strike. Some militia members object to the Iranian intervention, but they’ve received funding as part of Soleimani’s plan to establish a military enclave modeled on Hezbollah in Lebanon.
These militias carried out the missile strikes against American targets at Iraqi army camps and against facilities in Baghdad's Green Zone, where government ministries, parliament and foreign embassies are located.
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In October, a cease-fire was reached between the militias and the Iraqi government, which the militias conditioned on the departure of all U.S. forces from Iraq. This became a constitutional demand after parliament passed legislation to this effect following Soleimani’s assassination. U.S. President Donald Trump dragged his feet in fulfilling this demand, despite his announcement of troop withdrawals from both Afghanistan and Syria.
In recent weeks, however, U.S. officials held intensive talks with al-Kadhimi and agreed on a partial withdrawal, which according to Trump means getting some 500 of about 3,000 troops out of Iraq by the end of the year.
Last week the outgoing U.S. special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, admitted: “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there.” He said the actual troop number was “a lot more” than the 200 Trump had initially agreed to leave in Iraq.
Jeffrey has advised President-elect Joe Biden to stick to Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East. The United States could be playing the same misleading games in Iraq, with the number of soldiers withdrawn intended merely for negotiations with Baghdad.
State within a state
Either way, Trump’s troop-withdrawal announcement is seen in Iraq and Iran as an American surrender to the Shi’ite militias’ demands.
Shortly after Trump made his statement, missiles were fired again at the Green Zone, killing a child and wounding several other civilians. This ended the cease-fire. That day the Hezbollah Brigades released a photo from a gym serving U.S. soldiers to demonstrate the militia’s ability to infiltrate American facilities.
It’s doubtful whether reducing U.S. troop numbers in Iraq will appease the pro-Iranian militias, which seek to expand Iran’s political and military power base. These militias are recruiting more and more fighters, their people hold positions in all the government ministries and their leaders are members of the Iraqi parliament. They receive funding from both Iran and the state treasury, and they’re ensconcing themselves as a state within a state.
The withdrawal announcement will demonstrate Prime Minister al-Kadhimi's resolve and may help him win the general election in June. Also, al-Kadhimi started acting against the militias and even ordered his anti-terror people to try to figure out who fired the missiles at American targets. But he soon backtracked and apologized to the militias’ leaders, claiming that the anti-terror division had acted against his orders.
Trump’s decision to reduce American troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan is opposed by both Republicans and Democrats. Trump’s close friend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, called the decision a mistake and urged the president not to make “any earth-shaking changes with regard to defense and foreign policy” before leaving the White House.
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller didn't say if the move was agreed on by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying only that the Pentagon was consulting with all relevant officials. It’s doubtful if Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, supports the move, in view of NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg’s position that a hasty, uncoordinated pullout would have a very high price.
Biden, who supports the return of American troops, strongly opposed the withdrawal from Syria and opposes a full retreat from Afghanistan and Iraq without a diplomatic solution or political stability in those countries.
Political stability is a term flexible enough to justify keeping the U.S. troops in place for a long period without a precise date for a pullout. Afghanistan is at constant war with the Taliban, and the negotiations between the government and the Taliban, which controls most of the country, aren’t going anywhere.
According to the agreement the United States signed with the Taliban in February in the Qatari capital Doha, the holding of meaningful negotiations is a precondition for withdrawal. Political stability seems highly unlikely, and Trump apparently decided to ignore that clause when he announced the pullout.
In Iraq the American presence was explained by the need to fight the Islamic State. Formally, this war has ended, but ISIS continues to carry out terror attacks in various parts of the country.
Some of the American troops are busy training Iraqi army units but their presence is mainly intended to flaunt the U.S. backing for Iraq’s government and irk Iran. Reducing the troop numbers in Iraq won’t have a significant effect on the U.S. military’s missions, while the troops' presence will stoke claims by the government’s opponents and provide the Shi’ite militias – that, is Iran – with attack targets.
Karim Aliwi, a legislator for the Al-Fateh Alliance, said this week his organization rejected the half measure to reduce U.S. troop numbers and demanded the departure of all foreign forces from Iraq. The Al-Fateh Alliance is headed by Hadi al-Amri, the political leader of the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias.
An eye on Lebanon
Trump’s decision, if implemented by the end of his term, will leave Biden a complicated situation in the Middle East. The new president will have to decide if the expected conflicts among the rivals in Iraq and Afghanistan require renewed American involvement. Or he may adopt Trump’s policy and leave those countries to solve their problems themselves, whatever the price.
This decision will have far-reaching implications in Syria, where the Kurds will be forced to make a move in light of the American withdrawal from the region. Will they negotiate with the Syrian regime under Russia’s auspices or continue to confront the Turkish forces, knowing that the United States won’t help them?
Beyond the military questions, Trump set a precedent that’s no less important. He negotiated and signed a deal with the Taliban, which was classified as a terror organization and killed tens of thousands of people. And he let the Iraqi government negotiate with the Shi’ite militias, despite the terror-group label on some of them.
The United States heavily pressured Lebanon to keep Hezbollah out of politics, but it’s encouraging the Taliban’s participation in the Afghan government. And it isn’t demanding that Iraq boycott the Shi’ite militias’ political wing.
This contradiction is based on the realization that the forming of a functioning government wouldn’t be possible without the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
In Lebanon, too, there’s no chance of forming a stable government without Hezbollah’s consent, even though Washington still believes it can twist Lebanon’s arm. Also, the United States is committed to Israel’s stance, which sees Hezbollah as a terror organization that threatens its existence.
This position doesn’t hinder Israel from negotiating with the Lebanese government on a maritime border, despite Hezbollah’s presence in the government. With the sacred principle of banning negotiations with terror groups breaking, it will be interesting to see how Biden acts in Lebanon in view of Trump’s precedent.