In 2011, President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq, making good on his campaign promise to end the Iraq war that President George W. Bush initiated in 2003.
Three years later, however, US forces returned, in response to the rapid advance of the Islamic State (IS). This time, the US forces were part of an international coalition that came to be known as the “Combined Joint Task Force” (CJTF) which aimed at supporting the Iraqi forces, including the Kurdish forces to degrade and destroy IS. In this connection, the United States played a pivotal role in liberating Iraq lands from IS.
By 2017, IS lost control of its strongholds in Iraq and the Iraqi forces, with the support of the CJTF, managed to liberate Mosul, the last stronghold of IS. Since 2017, the United States has maintained a limited military presence in Iraq to train, advise, and support Iraqi forces in their missions to pursue remnants of IS. While IS no longer controls Iraqi territory, it showed its ability to re-emerge by carrying out attacks against Iraqi security forces.
As such, the Iraqi government expressed its desire for the continued presence of limited US military support in Iraq, but some political actors, especially those with close ties with Tehran, are opposing any US military presence since the threat of IS has been receded, calling on the United States to leave Iraq or otherwise it will be thrown out of the country.
The question that arises here is: Why are the US forces still present in Iraq while IS’ threat is now over and Iraqi territory has been fully liberated? The question gives rise to other questions:
- What is the legal basis for the continued US presence in Iraq?
- Why do some Iraqi political actors refuse the presence of US forces on Iraqi soil?
- What are the obstacles and consequences of the US withdrawal from Iraq?
I- The Legal Basis for the Presence of US Forces in Iraq
Unlike the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US ground and air military operations in Iraq against IS have a legal basis. The approval of these operations by the Iraqi government is considered their legal cornerstone, along with the support of the UN Security Council under Resolution No. 2249 of 2015, which called on countries to take all the necessary measures to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed by IS. Ergo, fighting IS came to be a goal of the entire international community and not only Iraq, which has become a party to this alliance without having the luxury to reject its terms given the difficult situation Iraq was experiencing and its pressing need for international assistance in countering IS.
Hence, the US operations in Iraq came at the invitation of the Iraqi government. For months, Iraqi and US officials conducted closed-door negotiations, towards establishing a relevant agreement. On 25 June 2014, then Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshyar Zebari sent a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, stating, “We have previously requested the assistance of the international community. While we are grateful for what has been done to date, it has not been enough. We therefore call on the United Nations and the international community to recognize the serious threat our country and the international order are facing. […] To that end, we need your support in order to defeat ISIL and protect our territory and people.” Then, on 20 September 2014, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Minister of Foreign Affairs who took office after the exit of Zebari and the Kurds from the Iraqi government in protest against policies of Nuri al-Maliki, sent a letter to the United States in which he expressed his gratitude for the military assistance the United States provided for Iraq, noting “Iraq and the United States have concluded a Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) that would help make the US assistance more effective and enable us to make significant progress in our war against IS.” The letter then asserted that Iraq, in accordance with international law and relevant bilateral and multilateral agreements and with due regard to full national sovereignty and the Iraqi constitution, has asked the United States to lead international efforts geared towards striking IS’ sites and military strongholds with the express consent of Iraq.
Those letters, along with other statements and agreements, are unequivocally demonstrative of Iraq’s approval of the United States’ use of military force on Iraqi soil against IS. In other words, the US military operations in Iraq are legal, because the Iraqi government acting through the Council of Ministers and drawing on the powers permitted under Iraqi law, has invited the United States to act on Iraqi soil.
However, the legal basis for US military acts in recent years against Iran-backed groups in Iraq is questionable in terms of both the Iraqi and international law. While operations against IS in Iraq have a solid legal basis in both international and Iraqi laws, these laws do not extend to the conflict between the United States and Iran and Tehran’s proxies in Iraq. For the United States to use force within the territory of another country, the receiving state, i.e. the Iraqi state in this case, must give its explicit consent and publicly express it. Such a consent should come from a legitimate authority (there is some debate over what could be considered a legitimate authority, particularly given the weak and non-dominant provincial governments over all Iraqi territories). So, in all cases, for a specific country to use armed force within the territories of another country, it shall obtain a consent within the restrictions imposed by the receiving country. Failing to obtain such a consent shall be considered a violation of international law. And if the receiving state withdraws its consent, the state using force must withdraw its forces or it would be violating the law.
II- US Contribution and Iraq’s Turning Point
Despite the conclusion of US combat missions in Iraq, the United States maintained some of those forces, with the aim of providing training, advice and support for the Iraqi security forces in their operations against the remnants of IS. This has been made at the invitation and approval of the Iraqi government (which still supports the continued presence of US forces to help prevent the return of IS and preserve US political and economic benefits.)
On many occasions, the US administration has expressed that it has no plans to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq. The commander of the US Central Command Franklin McKenzie has indicated several times that “they are looking to the future” and that the goal of the United States is to “develop the capabilities of Iraqi security forces and then leave the country when the Iraqi forces are further empowered”.
While IS suffered a crushing defeat regionally, it made a resurgence in 2019 and early 2020. Mounting an attack on a prison in Ghweran of Syria on 20 January 2022 and the killing of 11 Iraqi soldiers in Diyala the following day served as a wake-up call and a warning against the exclusive reliance on national forces and doing away with the US support. While the Iraqi Security Forces do well achieving stability and combating terrorism, US intelligence, logistical, training, and equipment support continues to play a critical role in empowering Iraqi forces and preventing the re-emergence of IS.
Even with the receding threat of IS, Iranian-backed attacks on US forces continued at a sustained pace. From 2019 onwards, some armed groups have engaged in a sustained campaign of attacks on US sites in Iraq and Syria. These campaigns came in the wake of former Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), and were exacerbated by Trump’s order to assassinate the commander of the Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
• A Turning Point
The killing of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, the Deputy Chairman of the Popular Mobilization Commission Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, and others in a US drone strike in the vicinity of Baghdad Airport, with the approval of US President Donald Trump, constituted a violation of the written terms agreed upon between the United States and Iraq. The strike didn’t only bombard IS’ targets but many of those killed (including Al-Muhandis) were, according to Iraqi law, members of the Iraqi armed forces by virtue of their positions in the Popular Mobilization Forces (which was merged, under Iraqi law, into Iraqi Security Forces since 2016). The strike, ordered by President Trump in response to a series of escalating attacks on US interests in Iraq, including an attack on the US Embassy, was instantaneously condemned by the Iraqi political spectrum.
Two days after the strike, the Iraqi Parliament issued a non-binding resolution calling on the Iraqi government to end the presence of all foreign forces on Iraqi soil. The vote, however, was boycotted by many Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers (only 168 out of 329 lawmakers participated in the vote). The decision was not binding on the then caretaker government headed by Adel Abdul-Mahdi; hence, the government was constitutionally unable to make important decisions. While the Iraqi Constitution and laws provide for the Parliament to ratify international treaties and agreements, the law does not expressly grant the Parliament the power to annul these agreements. Such authority rests with the Iraqi government, which did not cancel the SFA nor did it withdraw its consent for the presence of US forces in Iraq. Therefore, the resolution –which was indeed more symbolic– did not have any immediate impact on the US forces involved on the ground.
The internal Iraqi calls for the withdrawal or expulsion of the US forces (especially Shiite groups) ended as nothing but a political rallying cry and a basis for mobilization. Armed groups intensified their missile and drone attacks on US personnel and sites in Iraq. Oftentimes, such attacks are justified by demands for US withdrawal from Iraq, citing the non-binding Parliament resolution as an indication of the illegal US presence in Iraq. Since late 2019, five US citizens (including three US soldiers) and a British soldier, have been killed in attacks by those armed groups on US bases.
Until 2022, the White House approved four air strikes on pro-Iran armed groups on Iraqi soil, one under President Biden on 27 June 2021 and three under President Trump on 29 December 2019, 1 March 2020, and 13 March 2020.
Unlike the US operations in Iraq against IS, the US acts against the Iran-backed armed groups are legally ambiguous. It is fundamentally unclear whether the Iraqi approval takes these strikes in or not. Indeed, Iraq publicly condemned the US attacks on its soil following the strike that killed Qassem Soleimani and Al-Muhandis. Then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi described the strike as “an act of aggression against Iraq and a violation of its sovereignty, noting that the US “violated terms of the US military presence in Iraq”.
While the US-Iraqi cooperation terms allow the United States to defend itself against strikes, the public Iraqi statements indicate that the Iraqi government rejects the US justifications for those strikes. Notably, many Iraqis are deep down sympathetic to the US strikes, but they have to condemn them publicly for fear of retaliatory response from these armed groups.
• Rounds of Strategic Dialogue
In June 2020, the Iraqi government headed by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and the US administration headed by Trump held the first round of the Iraqi-US Strategic Dialogue aimed at addressing the future of the US presence in Iraq. Subsequent rounds of the dialogue included a meeting between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi in April 2021, where they agreed that the primary mission of the US forces shall be “training and consulting”, which would allow the redeployment of any remaining combat forces in Iraq. In June 2021, Iraqi and US governments announced that the security relationship between the two countries will entirely confined to training, providing advice and assistance, and intelligence sharing, that combat missions by US forces in Iraq will end by December 2021, and that the United States will continue to provide support for the Iraqi security forces, including the Peshmerga forces, to build their capabilities in dealing with future threats.
III- Obstacles to the US Withdrawal from Iraq
Seemingly, the agreement reached between Iraq and the United States on the US presence in Iraq isn’t but a re-adjustment of the US military presence, i.e. 2,500 soldiers will remain in Iraq rather than full withdrawal, where the US forces changed missions from combat to training, strategic support, and logistical support, with a focus on combating IS while keeping the US forces in Iraqi military bases.
This re-adjustment of the presence of US forces in Iraq demonstrates the need to keep, even partially, the US presence in Iraq. In effect, several obstacles preclude the US withdrawal from Iraq, including primarily the following:
I- The inability of Iraqi security institutions, to provide effective security protection for US interests, including bases and equipment, and the incompetence of military advisors who undertake training, arming, and intelligence missions. Further, dismantling the US military structure in Iraq so that it turns into national bases under Iraqi command and control is a challenging task to achieve in the short term, although no less than 12 US military bases were dismantled and approximately 147,000 US soldiers were evacuated over the course of ten years.
II- The Kurdistan Regional Government will not allow any sort of US withdrawal, given the outstanding cooperative relations between Kurdistan Region and the various US administrations. The Kurdistan government will not forget the US support when IS reached its borders. Thanks to this support, the advance of IS was stopped. Perhaps, Kurdistan’s refusal of the US withdrawal was a direct reason for targeting of US military bases in Kurdistan by the pro-Iranian armed groups, including primarily the targeting of the US base at Erbil Airport. The existence of the US forces in the Kurdistan Region is also very important for the United States, in case it decides, one day, to support the independence of the region.
III- On the other hand, despite the explicit position of Iran and its affiliated groups in Iraq on the US withdrawal, they are fully aware that any US withdrawal from Iraq may give rise to real US sanctions on Iraq, which would be catastrophic given Iraq’s inability to comply with the US sanctions on its dealings with Iran (Iraq enjoys a temporary US exemption on Iraq’s imports of Iranian gas and electricity, an exemption that is renewed every 90 days). If this happens, this would mean that Iran will lose its main economic artery that provides it with hard currency, particularly amid the difficult economic conditions Tehran is experiencing due to the Western sanctions.
IV- The current US administration does not have a desire for military withdrawal from Iraq, with Iraq being a lever it can utilize against Iran in the ongoing talks in Vienna to revive the JCPA, especially with the US desire to undermine Iranian expansion in the region as a condition for Washington’s return to the nuclear agreement.
V- Even with the US withdrawal from Iraq and the retention of a limited number of forces for training and consultation purposes, Iran-backed groups consider this a mere change in labels and not a real change in the nature of the US military presence in Iraq. According to these groups, Washington aims at ensuring the continued existence of its forces, albeit under other names. In this vein, observers indicate that Iran’s position on the US withdrawal from Iraq is subject to the dynamics of the US-Iranian nuclear negotiations, expanding to include all of Iran’s involvement in several regional files.
IV- Potential Scenarios
If the political actors linked with Iran insist on their positions regarding the US withdrawal from Iraq or using force to expel them, then Iraq will likely be subject to any of the following scenarios:
Chaos: According to this scenario, the United States does not want to get out of Iraq, but if it is forced to do so, it may leave Iraq facing some tough choices, including the awful option of IS, an option that may offer other armed groups an opportunity to convince the Iraqis that their presence is still essential as a protection and balancing factor.
Fragmentation and Division: If the United States finds itself forced to end its presence in Iraq under pressure from Iran-linked actors, it will resort to transfer its military bases to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. As such, the United States may change rules of the Iraqi game, proactively recognizing independence of the Kurdistan region, (a decision that it froze under Al-Abadi government) and using its international influence to secure recognition of that region as a state. In such a case, Erbil will become the center of command and control, against a retreat for Baghdad, particularly if similar independent steps are taken in other regions e.g. Sunni region in western Iraq.
Iran’s Upper Hand in Iraq: As per this scenario, Iran will have the upper hand in shaping the future of the Iraqi political scene. Since 2005, Iran has supported Shiite political forces that came to power. In most cases, Iran has been an active and a decisive player in Iraq. Meaning the pro-Iran groups will have a chance for more hegemony in Baghdad.
Status Quo: This scenario tends to be the most realistic regarding the US withdrawal from Iraq. Since 2003, Iraqi governments have always tended to deal with the United States, despite all the pressure they are coming under from the anti-US actors. Seemingly, Iraqi governments are aware of the importance of US support for Iraq and how the US withdrawal will affect the equation of power and the distribution of interests and wealth in Iraq. The “status quo scenario” seems the most likely at the present time due to the internal, regional, and international circumstances surrounding Iraq.
Clearly, there is no national consensus over the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. The US-Iran confrontation on Iraqi soil has given rise to internal polarization in Iraq, after all actors worked to avoid such polarization for a long time. As such the US presence in Iraq will have several benefits as well as risks, which can be detailed as follows:
- While IS has been defeated on the ground, the organization can re-emerge out of the blue. Lacking the continued US support, the Iraqi security forces may not be able to deal effectively with a potential IS resurgence.
- While the continued US military presence in Iraq portends an escalation with Iran, especially in view of the repeated retaliatory attacks between US forces and Iranian-backed groups (which the Iraqi government fails to fully control), there are robust political imperatives that necessitate maintaining a limited US military presence in Iraq to ensure Iraq’s stability and countering Iranian influence.
- While there are few who publicly acknowledge the necessity of the presence of US forces on Iraqi soil, many Iraqi government officials secretly support the continued US presence in Iraq as a counterweight to Iranian influence but do not acknowledge this publicly due to political sensitivities. Iraqi officials do not want their country to be controlled by a neighboring country. This fear of Iranian dependence is potent among Sunni and Kurdish components, but it has recently begun to show increasingly among the Shiite, many of whom have supported the popular protests demanding Iraq’s breaking free from Iranian control and armed groups, accused of killing demonstrators and journalists and involved in corruption cases. That said, the US support for Iraqi intelligence, law enforcement, and promoting just judiciary are crucial to preventing Iraq’s slide into a state of statelessness.
- While the future of Iraq as a democratic state is not complete yet, there is a long and arduous path ahead. Iraq is trying to enforce the rule of law despite all the challenges and criticisms; however, all of this is unlikely to be achieved with more Iranian control. As such, the United States should not allow itself to slide into any new and unclear conflict with Iran, which could affect the future of Iraq.
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