How long could a nagging war of attrition between Iran and U.S. military forces in Iraq go on? Judging by the gap between President Donald Trump’s pronouncements and his actions, it seems that Iran has plenty of time to play in the Iraqi arena. One working assumption has already taken root: Trump is not interested in all-out war, and neither is Iran.
But between all-out war and tense quiet there is still ample – and dangerous – room for activity by the two adversaries, particularly when neither one has a well thought out plan for resolving the crisis between them. The resounding farce about the intention to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq in conjunction with the deployment of additional forces elsewhere in the Middle East will attest to that.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered an interesting explanation for a letter publicized on Monday concerning the intention to withdraw from Iraq. “It was an honest mistake,” Milley told reporters at the Pentagon. “That letter is a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released. Poorly worded, implies withdrawal. That’s not what’s happening.”
Milley admitted that the letter, draft or not, was shared with the Iraqi military for coordination purposes. But it was never sent as a formal memorandum, he stated.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper was more decisive. “We have no plans to leave Iraq,” he declared. Someone else, none other than commander of U.S. forces in Iraq Brig. Gen. William Seely, was apparently the individual who drafted the letter, and it’s doubtful that he simply invented its contents from his fervid imagination.
Is the United States truly intending to withdraw from Iraq? Trump made it clear only one day earlier that he doesn’t intend to do so. After the Iraqi parliament passed a law compelling the government to remove foreign forces from its territory, Trump said his administration would impose harshsanctions if U.S. troops were expelled. “If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever,” Trump said on Air Force One. “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
Trump also threatened that in the event that Iraq would insist on the withdrawal of American troops, it would have to pay the U.S. huge amounts of money as compensation for the construction of an air force base in Iraq and for other investments the U.S. had made in the county.
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At the same time, Iraqi President Barham Salih reported that the American Embassy in Baghdad delivered to him the draft of a legislative bill with sanctions against Iraq, which Trump would try to push through if the new law moves into the implementation stage. Salih did not offer details on the bill, but it evidently calls for a freeze on all American activities in Iraq, a ban on collaboration between American and Iraqi companies and apparently also a closure of Iraqi airspace and a naval blockade.
The Iraqi government is not taking Trump’s threats lightly. Kurdish and Sunni lawmakers did not attend the discussion held on the law in the parliament, with the exception of Mohamed al-Halbousi, the Sunni speaker of the parliament. He tried to convince his Shi’ite “big brothers” to “act in keeping with the interests of the state, of the Sunnis and of the Kurds” and not let the law pass.
However, the anti-American sentiment proved too strong, and they enacted the law. Now it seems that formally speaking, only a legal decision stands in the way between its implementation and its delay. This concerns the legal authority of a transition government to make decisions that have dire implications for the country.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who may have said in the past that he favors the removal of foreign forces from Iraq, now well understood the practical significance of the demand. He tried to offer members of parliament a softer version, which would see Iraq pursue negotiations on a military cooperation agreement that would define the number of soldiers permitted to remain in the country, as well as the nature of their mission. Abdul-Mahdi is fearful, and justifiably so, that without American air support and the continuation of a training program that has trained close to 200,000 Iraqi troops to date, Iraq will be hard-pressed to withstand a renewed attempt by Islamic State forces to relaunch their offensive.
It’s not only ISIS that threatens Iraq. The civil unrest that began about three months ago and the large-scale demonstrations that brought about the resignation of Abdul-Mahdi and his government exposed the high degree of control exerted over the country’s internal political system by Iran and the Shi’ite militias who used lethal means to suppress the protests, injuring some 25,000 Iraqis and causing the deaths of 450.
The Iraqi government, which was forced to integrate the Shi’ite militias into its own security establishment, paying them salaries and providing them with pensions, does not control their operations. Their leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in the attack on Qassem Soleimani, received his instructions from the latter as well as from Qais al-Khazali, who is considered to be his direct boss. Khazali is both a member of the Iraqi parliament and the commander of the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia – Iran’s closest ally.
Khazali, who was detained by American forces back in 2007 and 2008 for terror activity against the U.S.-led coalition forces, recently became a wanted man once the American administration defined his militia as a terrorist group. He has been operating underground, but that doesn’t reduce his ability to put his rogue forces into action without restraints.
This week, the U.S. Central Command publicized some of the reports from the 2007 investigation of Khazali. They said that he “sold” the names of those collaborating with Iran, chiefly that of Muqtada al-Sadr, the isolationist Shi’ite leader who Khazali said received immense sums from Iran in order to carry out terrorist attacks with his own militia, the Mahdi Army, against the Americans. The timing of the reports’ release was not coincidental: Tarnishing Khazali’s image and further widening the rift between him and al-Sadr are part of the political struggle waged directly by the U.S. in an attempt to reshape the face of Iraq’s new government.
In the eyes of the Shi’ite militias’ opponents, only continued American presence can guarantee that Iraq will not become a full-fledged extension of Iran, which would employ all of its forces against the protest movement and eliminate any chance for regime change. Iraqi commentators saw the American attack on Shi’ite militia bases in late December as providing a tailwind to demonstrations and sending a message to the Iraqi and Iranian authorities to curtail the brutal repression. It was also a signal to anyone the parliament could appoint as the new prime minister that the U.S. has no intention of abandoning its political strongholds in favor of Iran.
However, the Iraqi interpretation does not compel American policy, and particularly not Trump, for whom the issue of democracy in Iraq is about as interesting as democracy in Syria or China. The question that several of Trump’s close advisors are putting to him is whether Iraq is a strategic asset or a burden that has sucked up and continues to suck up hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury, and is far from delivering the economic and political goods in exchange. The country that possesses the fifth greatest oil reserves worldwide had outstanding loans of some $115 billion in 2019, with the debt expected to grow to over $128 billion in 2021. Iraq has a difficult time supplying its own electricity and fuel, and its water and sewage infrastructure is in a poor and unstable state.
Trump can dream that Baghdad might be able to pay for that air force base. Without the backing of American forces, the oil companies and other American firms won’t remain in the country: the private security firms these companies employ cannot provide protection in the event of a massive civilian attack – and it goes without saying, an attack by military or paramilitary forces such as local militias. But one doubts the American taxpayer would agree to contribute his money and underwrite U.S. military presence in Iraq for the continued activity of these American companies. In the meantime, it seems that in spite of any intentions or noise emanating from Washington to impose sanctions on Iraq, it’s doubtful that any would be imposed any time soon.
Militarily, Iraq is not the most important stronghold for the United States, which has a large base in Qatar and additional bases in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. About 6,000 fighters and instructors serve in Iraq, not the sort of numbers that would indicate a particularly high military priority, in particular when the main pretext for them being there, the war against ISIS, has been declared over. Iraq clarified to the U.S. that it would not permit it or any other party to use its territory as a launchpad for attacks on Iran, meaning that even the most important strategic justification for America’s presence in the Gulf cannot rely on Iraq.
One can understand Trump’s anger over the new Iraqi law demanding the removal of American forces from the country. It isn’t nice to be deported, especially by someone who owes you billions of dollars. But ideologically speaking, disengagement from the Middle East will have to wait. The U.S. may be able to withdraw some of its forces from Iraq without harming its military preparedness, but the total number of troops deployed in the Middle East and particularly in the Persian Gulf cannot be reduced, especially not under circumstances in which it isn’t clear where the conflict with Iran is heading.
The lesson learned from Trump’s declaration to withdraw forces from Syria, the criticism he received for doing so in Congress and from America’s allies, and the understanding that such a withdrawal would not only place the Kurds in danger but would also grant the Russian-Turkish alliance a free hand to do as they wish in Syria without the brakes placed on them by the U.S. all suspended the American withdrawal. Removing forces from the Gulf region constitutes a direct threat to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which without American backing and protection would be compelled to seek another sponsor, and the only superpower that might be considered as a replacement is Russia.
Trump said Wednesday that he expects NATO to take on a more significant role in defending the Gulf. However, it isn’t his intention for NATO forces to take the place of the United States’ central role in the region, but rather that they will serve as reinforcements. The demonstration of an integrated force against Iran is critical as part of the diplomatic effort to forestall the absolute shattering of the nuclear agreement, which is being shredded as Iran breaks away from the restrictions imposed on it. If Trump is serious about his intention to renew talks with Iran and attempt to draft a new agreement, he will not simultaneously be able to withdraw forces out of the Gulf, thereby soften the military threat that he aspires to maintain against Iran.