Iraq Still Might Force the United States Out
“We basically need a piece of paper from them,” said the unnamed American official negotiating with the Iraqi government. Without it, no U.S. troops would go back to Iraq. Two weeks after the fall of Mosul to the self-proclaimed Islamic State in June 2014, the Obama administration received this piece of paper and authorized American forces to deploy to Iraq. Five and a half years later, a piece of paper will also determine whether U.S. troops remain in or leave Iraq.
As the fallout continues from the airstrikes that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani of Iran and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in Baghdad on Jan. 3, relations between Iraq and the United States are at a pivotal point. Considerable anger over the attacks led to political pressure for the Iraqi government to force out foreign troops, ostensibly in Iraq to provide training, advice and support for the campaign against ISIL. On Jan. 5, the Iraqi Council of Representatives voted for a resolution demanding the Abdul Mahdi government “end the presence of foreign forces” and cancel military assistance for the fight against ISIL.
If the Iraqi government follows through on this decision and ends the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq there will be significant consequences. First, it will lead to a deterioration in the Iraq-U.S. relationship, with possible damage to Iraq’s security, and harm the strategic position of the United States in the Middle East. Second, it means a victory for the pro-Iran camp in Iraq and will achieve a foreign policy objective of the Iranian government, thereby increasing its influence in Iraq. Finally, this will cause the United States to reassess Iraq’s position as an ally, with sanctions becoming an option, even while the United States continues to view Iraq as an arena to combat Iran in.
How Did We Get Here?
The chain of events that led to the Iraqi parliament’s decision began with the assassination of Soleimani, the commander of the Qods Force — the extraterritorial and unconventional operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — at Baghdad Airport at around 12:47 am on Jan. 3. While the Trump administration has made a case that it targeted Soleimani because he was planning an “imminent” attack on Americans, others suspect that his killing was planned for months in advance and was part of a wider plan to strike at the Qods Force.
What is not clear is what the Iraqi political reaction would have been had Soleimani been killed outside Iraq. Though there does not seem to have been planning to kill Jamal Jafar (whose nom de guerre was Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis), his death may have more significant impact on Iraqi politics than Soleimani’s. Until recently, he was the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the paramilitary umbrella body set up to oversee and integrate the largely Shia armed groups in the wake of the fight against ISIL in 2014. But his role in politics was much bigger than this and for the pro-Iran camp the loss of its leader was catastrophic.
Condemnation of the killings came swiftly, with Iraq’s outgoing Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi calling it “an aggression against Iraq … a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” along with denunciations by leaders of the biggest blocs in parliament. The pro-Iran Bina coalition immediately called on parliament to act to restore Iraq’s sovereignty by ejecting the United States and preventing it from using Iraq’s territory and airspace to conduct such operations.
The Trump administration was surprised by the reaction and scrambled to prevent parliament from meeting, applying pressure on various parties. They had not expected to kill Muhandis and therefore had not planned for the aftermath. This is despite several prior attempts by pro-Iran parties in parliament to force the United States out of Iraq.
Parliament convened on Sunday, Jan. 5, despite the absence of nearly all members from northern and western Iraq, areas where the battle against ISIL was fought and where the group might resurge if U.S. military support ends. Speaker Mohammed Al-Halbousi also made it clear there could be significant ramifications for Iraq if the United States was forced to withdraw. Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi made his case for why parliament should vote to expel U.S. forces, noting that neither Iraq or the United States could guarantee the safety of troops, and that Iraqi and U.S. priorities were diverging, to the point that the United States would violate Iraq’s sovereignty to pursue its own agenda.
A draft of the text that members of parliament were being asked to vote on was circulated at the start of the session. It listed four obligations for the government: cancel the request for assistance from the coalition, end the presence of foreign troops and prevent them from using Iraq’s territory and airspace, submit a formal complaint to the United Nations about the U.S. violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, and investigate the Baghdad Airport airstrikes. As the government had not drafted legislation (it would not have been able to due to its caretaker status) and parliament had not prepared for it, the vote would be to approve a resolution rather than a bill of law. There is some discussion of whether such resolutions are binding on government or merely express parliament’s wishes and advice, but previous discussions of this by the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court have not been conclusive and any legal challenge this time around would probably be unsuccessful as the court tends to favor the government.
After some statements by MPs, including one by the Sairoon party representing Muqtada Al-Sadr in favor of the vote, the resolution passed with 172 votes for and 0 against, with some MPs who declined to attend claiming they had been sent threatening messages telling them to either avoid the session or not to vote against the resolution. The prime minister now had the authority and also the responsibility to order foreign troops out of Iraq.
How Did U.S. Troops Return to Iraq in 2014?
The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq was the result of an agreement between the Iraqi and United States governments in June 2014. The Maliki government had requested the United States intervene to push back ISIL but was rebuffed until it had sent a formal request for assistance a week after the fall of Mosul as acknowledged by Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in Congress. The Obama administration would not agree to assist until it could obtain immunity for troops deployed to Iraq, the same issue that prevented the United States from retaining forces there after 2011 and led to full withdrawal (at the time the United States wanted the Iraqi parliament to guarantee immunity). The Iraqi government agreed to provide immunity and this was set out with the terms of assistance in an exchange of diplomatic notes between Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Department. While one former U.S. official claims there was a one-year cancellation clause in the note, it is not clear what that entails practically, and also its existence has not been confirmed by the Iraqi side. In any case, if the United States was told to leave it would almost certainly not opt to remain for a year in a hostile environment.
So for American troops to be ordered out of Iraq all that is required is for the Iraqi government to notify the United States government through formal notice by the Foreign Ministry that the request for assistance from June 2014 is rescinded — essentially a second piece of paper cancelling the first one. Though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others in the Trump administration have alluded that Abdul Mahdi as an outgoing prime minister does not have power to do so, this has not been established. Abdul Mahdi went to parliament for two reasons: Firstly, as a resigned prime minister he wanted the assurance of authority as the constitution states that caretaker governments discharge day-to-day affairs and there could be a question of whether that provision covers terminating a bilateral agreement. Secondly, he sought to place the pressure on parliament and parties that wanted such a move, so that he would merely be acting on their wishes rather than initiating a hugely risky political move.
Where Do the Iraqi and U.S. Governments Stand on Withdrawal?
On Monday, Jan. 6, the Iraqi prime minister met with the U.S. Ambassador Matthew Tueller and conveyed to him his intention to comply with the parliamentary resolution. Abdul Mahdi did not order the Foreign Ministry to formally notify the United States to withdraw. This signals that he is trying to work out an amicable agreement that achieves some sort of withdrawal without forcing a full and immediate one. One Iraqi official floated the prospect of the withdrawal applying to combat troops and not military trainers.
To compound an already complicated situation, later that day the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq sent a letter to the Iraqi Joint Operations Command stating that coalition troops would comply with Iraq’s sovereign wishes and prepare to withdraw from Iraq. The letter was leaked and a great deal of confusion set in as the Pentagon first stated the letter was a fake, then a draft, then a badly worded and misunderstood intent of repositioning troops, and finally a mistake. Secretary Esper was adamant that U.S. troops would not be withdrawing from Iraq and the letter was to be disregarded. Abdul Mahdi’s comments during a cabinet session the next day indicated that he considered the letter as official notice and would work under the assumption that the United States would withdraw, though this is probably just posturing.
Statements from the Trump administration since then have been pointed in clarifying no intention to withdraw, including dismissing Abdul Mahdi’s call for a withdrawal plan. The State Department released a blunt statement on Friday, Jan. 10, that confirmed no formal negotiations on withdrawal would begin, alluding to discussions on possible repercussions of a forced withdrawal. This was walked back somewhat in a call between Pompeo and Abdul Mahdi where the willingness to discuss the future of U.S. forces in Iraq was brought up. Despite this messaging, Trump will likely agree to a withdrawal “at some point” as he has frequently voiced his disappointment at the cost of the American presence in Iraq and maintaining military operations at the Ain Al-Assad base. In a recent meeting between Trump and Iraqi President Barham Salih he seemed to commit to pulling forces out of Iraq on condition that withdrawal is not done in a disrespectful way. However, it may be that further evidence of Iraq’s “disrespect” toward the United States prompts Trump to pull out forces in a spontaneous decision, similar to the drawdown in Syria. The seeming incapability of Iraqi Security Forces to prevent attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and U.S. facilities elsewhere in Iraq, combined with political statements denouncing the American presence, along with the possibility of American casualties, may push Trump to make such a decision.
The U.S. government will now work to apply pressure to prevent formal notice of a withdrawal being given. This will include highlighting the possibility of secondary sanctions being applied when the current waiver expires, new measures to protect the flow of dollars into sanctioned organizations thereby tightening their availability to Iraq’s Central Bank, and drafting primary sanctions that target Iraq’s economy. This messaging has been received by Iraq’s politicians, and while there should be no understating of the potential economic dangers to Iraq, such sanctions would prove counter-productive to U.S. interests.
This pushback from the Trump administration is one of the reasons Abdul Mahdi has not yet formally submitted a demand for the United States to withdraw from Iraq. He has sought consensus on the issue and looked for support from his political allies to move forward. Until now Abdul Mahdi does not seem to have found unanimous approval for forcing U.S. troops out, leaving him little choice but to postpone that decision to the next government. The next Iraqi prime minister will almost certainly be nominated by the Bina coalition and the Sairoon party, on condition that the decision to remove American forces is followed through on.
Even in the unlikely event that the current Iraqi government moves ahead without pause, it’s almost impossible for the United States to ignore a demand to withdraw and remain in Iraq. That would be illegal and potentially an act of war, and also make U.S. troops and assets a target for attack. Though some may air suggestions of the United States pulling back to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, their presence there would still be illegal and open up the Kurdish region to potential attacks targeting an occupying foreign force.
If the formal notice to withdraw is given, there may be an attempt to write that “piece of paper” the way Iraq wants and for the United States to read it the way it wants. Will the notice require foreign troops to depart over the course of several years — a sort of slow withdrawal? Could a specific number of trainers remain? Would a new agreement be swiftly drafted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq under more stringent conditions? There are other such pragmatic suggestions but it would require the United States to engage constructively on the subject, which it is yet to do. Not working on a plan to withdraw some troops and planning to retaliate if forced to do so seem like foolish decisions.
What Happens If the U.S. Withdraws from Iraq?
The dilemma for Iraq is whether it can maintain good relations with the United States while forcing it to withdraw troops from Iraq. While supporters of the push to force the United States stress the positives, the risk of negative impacts is tangible. What Iraq’s senior politicians need to consider is the security, political and military effects of expelling U.S. troops from Iraq, in addition to the economic ones. When the United States left Iraq at the end of 2011 and disengaged from it, the political and security vacuum that resulted contributed to the rise of ISIL. Observers declared that Iraq fell under the control of Iran and Iraq’s foreign relations suffered as a result.
Since the decision by the coalition to halt operations against ISIL in Iraq due to security concerns, voices from Iraq’s security forces have spoken up on the damaging effects of potential U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. There are significant gaps in Iraqi counter-terrorism capabilities that the coalition currently fills. The United States contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to Iraq to support Iraq’s security. The threat to cut such support, if U.S. troops are forced out, will have a sharp impact on Iraqi security forces and their ability to fight ISIL effectively.
Furthermore, while the United States may not have a choice if forced to pull troops out, it can avoid pre-emptively doing so. If the United States does leave and disengages from Iraq it will leave Iran with a more influential position in Iraqi politics. It will strengthen the Bina bloc, which campaigned on forcing U.S. troops out in the 2018 elections, and it will be a foreign policy achievement for the Iranian government, who have long called for the United States to pull its military forces out of Iraq. The Popular Mobilization Forces and the pro-Iran armed groups operating in Iraq will have a bigger role in Iraq’s security, and so the feedback loop with the Bina bloc will continue.
A final danger lies in the potential military conflict with Iran and possible escalation in Iraq if the United States no longer has assets to protect there. The hawks in the Trump administration who urged the president to escalate against Iran could decide that Iraq will be treated as an enemy, thereby necessitating sanctions. Iraq could thus become a battleground where the United States conducts airstrikes and attacks Iranian assets or pro-Iran groups, avoiding direct military confrontation with Iran and a ground war, but pursuing an aggressive strategy with little potential for American loss of life in Iraq. For Iraq that would be the epitome of loss of sovereignty and create a dangerous instability, pushing it toward a cycle of violence.
Are There Any Good Outcomes?
At the time of writing no formal notice has been given by the Iraqi government for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi territory. It is likely forthcoming in the weeks and months ahead, unless the United States makes an effort to prevent it. This could be done by avoiding further threats and adopting a more cooperative posture with Iraq to relieve some of the pressure on the Iraqi government. Reducing the non-essential military footprint of forces in Iraq would be a positive step. Iraq has invited the United States to assist with the counter-ISIL campaign — withdrawing American troops who do not contribute to that mission would reduce fears that the priorities of the United States in Iraq are focused on countering Iran. The United States could commit to not undertaking any military action in Iraq without approval of the Iraqi government, thereby restoring confidence in Iraq being able to exercise sovereignty with the presence of foreign troops. A series of de-escalatory measures with Iran would also positively impact Iraqi-U.S. relations. Lastly, new agreements to support Iraq’s economy and other such bilateral deals would reinforce the potential of America’s positive role to the Iraqi public.
There are several unknown elements to watch for. A partial pull-out initiated by the United States could satisfy or negate the notice to withdraw. A new prime minister could come into power and new agreements come into place. Trump could make a sudden decision to withdraw as he did in Syria; ISIL could regroup leading to severe deterioration of security in Iraq; or U.S. troops could suffer casualties if pro-Iran groups attack American assets in Iraq.
My assessment, which concurs with that of other analysts, is that the United States will begin withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2020. The manner in which that happens will be the decisive factor in setting Iraqi-U.S. relations for the medium term. There may be a huge difference between Iraq expelling American troops and the United States withdrawing from Iraq. If the United States punishes Iraq in one way or another then it may make the choice between Iran and the United States as the preferred partner a foregone conclusion: Iraq may not always be an American ally, but it will always be Iran’s neighbor.
Withdrawing troops from Iraq may not be the current policy of the United States but losing Iraq completely would be a disastrous outcome. Perhaps a good period to which relations could be reset is 2015–2017, when Iraq seemed to successfully balance U.S.-Iran ties. During that time Iraq managed to prevent Iran and the United States from clashing inside its territory while maintaining strong relations with both and receiving acknowledgement that it would not choose one over the other. It was also a period when Iraq’s foreign relations with the Middle East and Europe developed tremendously, and the U.S.-Iran détente contributed to that. Iraq knows the value the United States brings to Iraq, but maybe the United States doesn’t.
It would be wise for policymakers on both sides to keep in mind that Iraq’s stability has implications for the wider Middle East, and difficult decisions need to be taken to prevent Iraq’s myriad crises from exploding under the weight of a new one. If Iraq’s senior politicians use a pragmatic approach — that satisfies demands for protection of sovereignty without endangering Iraq’s security or incurring the wrath of the United States — and the United States uses the opportunity to draw down some troops while keeping strong political, economic, and military ties with Iraq, then both countries can achieve the right signaling to their national audience while meeting their legal and strategic obligations. That’s a win-win situation out of a very difficult set of lose-lose ones and the one that both governments should be working toward.
Sajad Jiyad is the managing director of Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, an independent think tank based in Baghdad. He can be followed on Twitter for Iraq-related analysis.