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Foreign forces likely to remain in Iraq despite Baghdad's grandstanding

By Paul Iddon 4/3/2018
A Danish soldier observes Iraqi troops as they conduct mortar training at Camp al-Asad on February 21, 2018. Photo: Spc. Zakia Gray | US Army
A Danish soldier observes Iraqi troops as they conduct mortar training at Camp al-Asad on February 21, 2018. Photo: Spc. Zakia Gray | US Army
The Iraqi Parliament's March 1st resolution calling on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to draw up a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq is unlikely to have immediate effects on the US-led coalition troop presence in the country. 

"The parliament's resolution is non-binding and is only a suggestion," Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, told Rudaw English. 

"There are many Shiite MPs who are talking about a Coalition withdrawal, especially those close to Iran and probably some Sadrists as well," he added. "That being said there are many others from Abadi's followers, to the Kurds, and to Sunnis who are happy with the US and its allies staying. That means there is no real pressure on Abadi on the issue."

Michael Knights, an Iraq-focused analyst and Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute, echoed Wing's point on the non-binding nature of the resolution.

"Parliament can pass these kinds of motions and they have no impact," he told Rudaw English, "so they are used to make political statements, especially ahead of elections."

Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East affairs researcher, says the resolution "had the support of Iran and its allies in Baghdad, to phrase it at its mildest."

"The resolution, non-binding as it is, is evidently meant as a political instrument heading into the May elections, a marker to strengthen the hand of the Hashd al-Shaabi and its allies, and Prime Minister Abadi again shows himself to be an unreliable bulwark against these most sectarian forces," Orton told Rudaw English. 

Powerful elements within the Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries, especially those backed by Iran, vehemently oppose any US troop presence in Iraq, since many of these groups fought the Americans before during the Iraq War. 

Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist Movement, has also called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Iraq. When Sadr released his 'Initial Solutions' proposal for post-Islamic State (ISIS) Iraq early in 2017 he said that US troops, Iranian advisors and Turkish troops at the Bashiqa training camp near Mosul must leave Iraq along with foreign volunteers who joined the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight ISIS.

"Abadi made the Hashd into a formal state institution, sanctioned the Iranian-led attack on Kurdish-held Kirkuk and then made a direct electoral pact with the most sectarian, Iran-loyal elements," Orton added. "That he abandoned this pact soon after makes no difference; the damage is done."

Orton went on to note that whether Abadi is doing this to try to placate Iran and other Shiite groups by giving into some of their demands — which he points out is "a doomed strategy since voters inclined to that kind of politics will not vote for a diluted form of it" — or actually shares their goals, makes no real difference whereby Western interests in Iraq are concerned. 

"Abadi's appeasement or bandwagoning with Iran's allies doesn't bode well for Western interests, specifically keeping ISIS down, since it was the strengthening of such political trends in Baghdad in 2012-13 that helped provide space for ISIS to revive," he pointed out. 

If a binding resolution to pass compelling Abadi to tell all US troops to leave Iraq entirely, it would result in "a situation similar to that after December 2011, with ISIS on the rise, a state unable to police its own territory, and the most powerful anti-ISIS militias in Iraq being those loyal to foreign patrons, which feed the sectarian polarization that ISIS needs to make its way."

Such a bleak outcome is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. 

"Abadi and the Coalition have already agreed upon a draw-down by roughly 50 percent, but there will still be forces remaining to help with training, logistics and so forth," Wing explained. 

Halving the number of US troops in Iraq would leave a force of approximately 4,000 in the country and would not at all resemble the total withdrawal — the kind Washington made in December 2011.

"Hopefully Iraq learned its lesson from what happened the last time the Americans completely withdrew and how that helped the resurgence of the Islamic State," Wing concluded.

The US military's mission in Iraq has gradually transitioned from destroying ISIS to ensuring the areas which the group had annexed into its self-styled caliphate are adequately secured and stabilized so it doesn't simply arise again in the near future. These troops will be needed to train Iraqi and Kurdish forces on how to engage in counter-insurgency operations as ISIS remnants revert to being a stateless terrorist organization. 

Erbil would likely oppose Baghdad forcing Coalition trainers presently based there to withdraw. Orton reckons that while the Kurdistan Region "is in a much weaker position now," it could "probably find some legalistic work-around to continue hosting American forces independent of Baghdad's writ, should it choose to do so."


pre-Boomer Marine brat | 5/3/2018
Excellent column, Mr. Iddon. Thank you.

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