Iraqi-U.S. Ties Reach a Breaking Point

Iraqi-U.S. Breaking Point

Iraqi-U.S. Breaking Point : An Iraqi demonstrator poses with the national flag as angry protesters blocked roads in the central city of Najaf on Jan. 5, 2020, to oppose the possibility that Iraq would become a battleground between the United States and Iran. The killing of senior Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani has driven a wedge between Washington and Baghdad.

 

Image result for An Iraqi demonstrator poses with the national flag as angry protesters blocked roads in the central city of Najaf on Jan. 5, 2020, to oppose the possibility that Iraq would become a battleground between the United States and Iran. The killing of senior Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani has driven a wedge between Washington and Baghdad. (HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP via Getty Images)HAIDAR HAMDANI

  • S. influence is likely to diminish — but won’t disappear completely — in Iraq if U.S. forces leave the country.
  • A drawdown in the long term would ultimately politically benefit Iranian-allied politicians in Baghdad and open a security vacuum that Iran, China and Russia could seek to exploit.
  • The issue will increase political divisions in Iraq between Iraqi politicians who support a U.S. withdrawal and those who oppose it, including Iraq’s Kurds. 

In death, senior Iranian military figure Qassem Soleimani may be getting closer to achieving one of his overarching aims: removing the U.S. military presence from Iraq. On Jan. 5, Iraq’s parliament convened a special session in the wake of the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani and other Iraqi militia leaders to accelerate the government’s expected request that the United States withdraw its forces from Iraq. In the nonbinding resolution, legislators demanded that the Iraqi government cancel its request for assistance from the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, remove all foreign troops from Iraqi land and airspace, keep all weapons in government hands, investigate the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani, and lodge a complaint at the United Nations over Washington’s alleged violation of Iraqi sovereignty. One day later, a draft letter from the U.S. Department of Defense and a statement from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper indicated that the United States could be already preparing to reposition its forces there.Iraqi-U.S. Breaking Point

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The parliamentary resolution is just one facet among many suggesting that Iraqi authorities will ultimately ask the U.S. military to leave the country. Naturally, Iraq is weighing the pros and cons of continuing its security cooperation with the United States, but one outcome ultimately seems far more likely than the rest: namely, that Iraq pushes ahead with its request that the United States leave, or supports a U.S. decision to withdraw, resulting in an overhaul to their ties that downgrades their security cooperation.

Why Iraq Would Want the U.S. to Go

U.S. forces are currently in Iraq under a relatively informal agreement between the Iraqi and U.S. governments following Baghdad’s 2014 request for military assistance and security cooperation to help defeat the Islamic State. Given that, the agreement between Baghdad and Washington is not a typical status of forces agreement but more like an invitation that Baghdad can rescind as it wishes.

One key reason that Baghdad would want the United States to go is that the original reason for the invitation — the threat of the Islamic State — has receded, given that the group has lost influence (as well as all its territory) over the last several years. The close coordination between the United States and Iraq in their fight against the jihadist group has also become a target for extremist recruitment.

At present, Iraq resents how the United States has dragged it into its campaign of maximum pressure against Iran. More than that, however, it fears that the American campaign has made it vulnerable to collateral damage from yet more proxy conflict between Iranian-allied forces and U.S. troops. In fact, the airstrike that killed Soleimani illustrated the threat of the United States’ anti-Iran campaign so starkly that even the country’s U.S.-allied politicians are voicing a more independent stance. The Jan. 5 session began with an unusual condemnation of U.S. actions by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who voiced his anger over Washington’s infringement of Iraqi sovereignty. (The acting prime minister, meanwhile, revealed on Jan. 5 that Soleimani traveled to Baghdad the night he was killed to deliver a message to Iraq regarding Saudi-Iranian mediation talks, underscoring how Iraq feels the United States might have manipulated it with the strike on Soleimani.)

A greater rift between the United States and Iraq won’t automatically translate into greater closeness between Baghdad and Tehran. After all, many Iraqis of all walks of life resent the impudence of Iranian-allied militias.

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Why Iraq Would Want the U.S. to Stay

The wave of Iraqi anger at the United States notwithstanding, there are many reasons why Baghdad would prefer Washington’s continued involvement. For one, the strong pro-Iran camp in Iraq has been threatening to vote on the U.S. presence in the country since the last election in 2018, but the backlash over Soleimani assassination has emboldened it — a development that could worry Baghdad as it tries to maintain a modicum of an independent foreign policy and rein in Iranian-allied militias that rarely heed the commands of the Iraqi government. Without question, that balance would be harder to maintain if the United States withdraws and loses some of its direct influence, ceding ground to Iranian-allied politicians and militia forces.

Ultimately, the Iraqi government is split over the issue, as many lawmakers want to maintain U.S. support. With just 172 out of the 329 total lawmakers present for the vote, the Jan. 5 resolution barely met quorum requirements, as practically no Kurdish and Arab Sunni lawmakers attended the session. Moving forward, further political fractures in Baghdad are a distinct possibility, particularly between the Kurds — the U.S. government’s closest allies in the Iraqi government — and the rest of the largely Arab government.

Given such considerations, a greater rift between the United States and Iraq won’t automatically translate into greater closeness between Baghdad and Tehran. After all, many Iraqis of all walks of life resent the impudence of Iranian-allied militias, their tendency to operate outside the control of the Iraqi government and their violence toward civilians. But a rift would open a vacuum that other powers including Iran, naturally, but also external actors like Russia and China, would move to fill.

What Happens Next

These considerations notwithstanding, the Iraqi government is ultimately likely to move forward with a request for the United States to withdraw. Procedurally, the government can now use the Jan. 5 resolution to pressure the U.S. government or submit a bill to parliament articulating some of the motion’s demands. Aside from the legally hazy issue of whether a caretaker prime minister has the authority to make such a decision, it is clear that it is only the executive branch, rather than parliament itself, that holds the power to oust the United States. What’s more, the Federal Supreme Court would also need to rule on such a bill given that its contents affect Iraq’s national security.

If Iraq does, indeed, show the United States the door, there will likely be a period of negotiation between the two governments over how the withdrawal will occur.

And then there’s the question of the battle against the Islamic State — a common enemy to Washington, Iranian-backed militia forces and the Iraqi army alike. A U.S. withdrawal could help presage a resurgence of the group, which endures but is largely contained. The threat of Iranian-backed militia groups to the United States, in particular, is now so great that U.S. forces in the country announced a pause in the battle against the jihadist group to focus on defense against Tehran’s proxies.

If Iraq does, indeed, show the United States the door, there will likely be a period of negotiation between the two governments over how the withdrawal will occur — rather than Washington attempting to stay against Baghdad’s wishes. To many, that would put the United States in the role of an occupier, necessitating even more troops on the ground to protect the mission amid an almost-certain uptick in militia attacks on U.S. forces and installations.

At the same time, however, the United States, especially the White House, could respond to an Iraqi request for its withdrawal by adopting a punitive stance toward Baghdad by, for instance, taking a harder line on Iraq. In February, for example, Iraq is likely to apply for waivers from Washington to be able to continue importing the Iranian natural gas it needs to generate electricity. Such action, however, would only drive a bigger wedge between Washington and Baghdad, driving the latter further into the arms of Tehran over the long term, despite the economic barriers created through sanctions. U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has floated the idea of imposing sanctions against Iraq, although it’s unlikely the United States would do anything that would significantly reduce Iraqi oil production. After all, at 4.7 million barrels per day, Iraq’s volume is simply too big for Saudi Arabia to offset — and a rising cost of crude could result in higher fuel prices in the United States, dragging down presidential approval ratings.

Before the airstrike that killed him, Soleimani and Iranian-backed militia leaders were polarizing figures, inspiring reverence and loathing in Iraqis in equal measure. But amid Baghdad’s bid to walk a fine line between Washington and Tehran, the killing of the senior Iranian military figure could tilt the balance, putting the Islamic republic in the ascendancy in Iraq at the expense of the United States.

Before the airstrike that killed him, Soleimani and Iranian-backed militia leaders were polarizing figures, inspiring reverence and loathing in Iraqis in equal measure. But amid Baghdad’s bid to walk a fine line between Washington and Tehran, the killing of the senior Iranian military figure could tilt the balance, putting the Islamic republic in the ascendancy in Iraq at the expense of the United States.

Source: Stratfor|Worldview

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