US announces troop withdrawal from Iraq, but little is expected to change

US announces troop withdrawal from Iraq, but little is expected to change


The Iraqi Prime Minister is traveling to Washington this weekend to demand President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of all US combat forces from Iraq and announcing to the Iraqi media that the visit would “end the presence of combat forces.”

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The Iraqi Prime Minister is traveling to Washington this weekend to demand President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of all US combat forces from Iraq and announcing to the Iraqi media that the visit would “end the presence of combat forces.”

US officials say the United States will likely comply with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s request and set a deadline for the withdrawal of US forces by the end of the year, to be announced Monday.

The Pentagon and other government officials say they will accomplish this by removing a small but unspecified number of the 2,500 U.S. forces currently stationed in Iraq and by reclassifying them according to the roles of other forces. Al-Kadhimi will take home a political trophy to appease anti-American factions in Iraq and the US military presence will remain in place.

“There will be no US forces in a combat role by the end of the year,” said a senior US official familiar with the ongoing discussions. “We expect some troop adjustments in line with this commitment.”

What appears to be a standard work of diplomatic theater is al-Kadhimi’s recent attempt to step between the needs and demands of Iraq’s two closest allies, the United States and Iran. Pro-Iranian factions are calling for the US to withdraw, while Iraqi officials admit they still need help from US forces.

The Biden administration, in turn, is grappling with how to operate in a country that since the US invasion 18 years ago has come under the grip of Iran-backed militias and a corrupt political system that marginalizes Iraq’s government institutions of the collapse.

Al-Kadhimi’s government, along with many high-ranking Iraqi military officials, quietly advocates that the roughly 2,500 US soldiers in Iraq remain in their current form. But the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, along with a senior Iraqi security officer and eight others in a U.S. drone strike in 2020 made the U.S.’s current presence in the United States politically impossible and politically undesirable conditions . Following the US drone strike, the Iraqi parliament asked the government to withdraw US forces – a motion that was non-binding but sent a strong message to any politician who wanted to stay in power, including the prime minister.

Given the coronavirus pandemic, a budget crisis, and powerful Iran-backed militias that largely escape his control, al-Kadhimi has achieved little since he took office two years ago. His advisors argue that if he were given more time, he could curb the militia, curb corruption and arrest more murderers from hundreds of unarmed protesters and activists.

Most of Iraq’s paramilitary forces were formed in 2014 in response to a call by the country’s most revered Shiite cleric to Iraqis to mobilize against the Islamic State. These militias were later incorporated into Iraq’s official security forces, but the most powerful are tied to Iran and only nominally under the control of the Iraqi state.

The United States has repeatedly blamed Iranian-backed militias for ongoing attacks on US targets in Iraq. The US and many Iraqi officials believe the militias are also responsible for most of the killings of activists and for a wide variety of illegal moneymaking.

Monday’s announcement comes as the Pentagon nears the end of its withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and ends its 20-year presence there despite the Taliban occupying dozens of districts across the country in a military offensive.

After President Barack Obama withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011, some remained under the supervision of the US embassy in Baghdad. Three years later, as ISIS fighters conquered territory in large parts of Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi government demanded US military support to fight the terrorist group.

Since the Islamic State Group was evicted from its last Iraqi stronghold in 2017, US officials have consistently claimed that there are no combat forces in Iraq as no combat operations are currently authorized. However, they acknowledge that a small number of U.S. special forces act as advisors, and trainers occasionally accompany Iraqi counter-terrorism forces on combat missions against ISIS group fighters.

In Washington, Pentagon officials said Friday that they expected the troop strength in Iraq to remain at its current level of around 2,500 and that the roles of some U.S. forces would be redefined.

But while al-Kadhimi provides temporary political cover, reclassifying U.S. forces rather than withdrawing will likely not satisfy the militias and political parties demanding a withdrawal of all troops, Iraqi officials say.

“Changing your name from combat forces to coaches and advisers – we see this as an attempt at deception,” said Mohammad al-Rubai’e, political spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the largest Iranian-backed militias with 16 seats in Iraq Houses of Parliament.

These militias, and many related Iraqi politicians, claim that the real purpose of US forces in Iraq is to confront Iran, not the threats made by Islamic State. Iran has launched increasingly sophisticated attacks on US targets in Iraq this year, including drone strikes, and the United States has launched calibrated retaliatory strikes.

“The dialogue with the United States is: How can we think about maintaining a useful presence without incurring high political costs?” Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow of the Century Foundation, a US think tank, said this week while visiting the Iraq. “The interests of the two sides do not really align because the United States will not see it in their interests to continue to be attacked by these militias, which the Iraqi government cannot curb.”

Iran denies responsibility for the attacks, according to Iraqi officials, but its leaders have also made it clear that they intend to retaliate against the United States for the killing of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iraqi deputy militia commander .

The United States has increasingly focused on protecting armed forces over the past year, withdrawing from vulnerable bases in Iraq to consolidate its presence at three Iraqi military facilities.

While the Islamic State group is unable to conquer territory, the group continues to carry out destabilizing attacks such as market bombings that indicate weaknesses in the Iraqi security forces.

“In Iraq, ISIS is being defeated as a major military threat, but its radical ideology lives on,” said Mark Kimmitt, a retired US Army brigadier general and former State Department official who now advises US firms doing business in Iraq. “However, deradicalization is not part of the US mission.”

The US occupation of Iraq shook the country, not only overturning its dictator in 2003, but also disbanding the army, dug up its government institutions and helping returned Iraqi exiles build a political system along sectarian and ethnic lines that persecutes the nation to this day .

For years, this system has given government ministries to political parties siphoning off funds for public services and has contributed to poorly functioning hospitals, persistent power outages, millions of unemployed Iraqis and a government unable to pay their bills.

Infrastructure like electricity, which was barely functioning after more than a decade of US-led pre-war sanctions, was never fully repaired. Fighting against al-Qaeda, the civil war in Iraq and the fight against the Islamic State have further damaged the infrastructure.

With oil prices falling last year, Iraq struggled to cover its huge government wage bill, which has tripled since 2004, as the political parties responsible for ministries create jobs for loyalists.

“We are now talking about repairing damage caused by the ex-regime, al-Qaeda, ISIS and the damage caused by the ruling political class,” said Luay al-Khatteeb, a former electricity technocrat. “If this chaos continues, it will destroy the country.”

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