On December 26, 2018, President Donald Trump paid a controversial visit to Iraq’s al-Asad Air Base where he met with American soldiers stationed in the country. This raised the ire of many Iraqis who considered his largely secret trip a violation of their country’s sovereignty. To Iraqis, the base––originally named al-Qadisiyya Air Base when built by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s––represents Iraq’s tenuous relationship with the United States: while Baghdad still needs American assistance in fighting extremist organizations like the Islamic State, a sizeable segment of its political elites is friendly to Iran and distrusts Washington’s policy and presence.
For one thing, the visit provided Iran and its Iraqi supporters with a golden opportunity to harness their energy and efforts to avenge Trump’s imposition of sanctions on the Islamic Republic. They also exploited the situation to heighten tensions and agitate for ending the American presence in Iraq—a goal, if realized, would allow Tehran to completely impose its unhindered will on Iraq and assist it in establishing a Pax Iranica that extends to the Mediterranean Sea. Needless to say, if such a scheme comes to pass, US presence in other areas such as Syria and Afghanistan would be jeopardized. And if the United States withdraws from Iraq, the regime in Iran would be able to subjugate the Iraqi Sunnis in their areas of the country simply by using the Shia militias it equips and leads.
The Confused—and Confusing—Visit
The president did visit American troops in Iraq without an official sanction from Baghdad, and that followed concerns about his security when an amateur spotter discovered his plane over Europe. It could be that the Iraqi government knew of Trump’s movements but put out a public message about not being notified in order to mollify Iran’s supporters in the country who objected to his visit. There had been reports in the American press about a November 2018 presidential visit to Iraq and Afghanistan, which exposed Trump’s hesitation to visit countries where American troops were deployed because of security concerns and his general opposition to the wars.
The president did not meet Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi, who refused to come to al-Asad Air Base. The two men were only able to have a telephone conversation. But it was noteworthy that Trump did not even acknowledge the Iraqi government’s hosting of American troops and facilitating their operations in Iraqi territory. Instead, the president focused his remarks on the American soldiers’ sacrifices overseas and how the Islamic State has been weakened and defeated. However, the president committed a grievous error, in the context of US security protocols, when he revealed in a photo the existence of a Navy Seal team on duty at the base.
Certain messages can be gleaned from Trump’s visit. First, Iraq in its two parts—Arab and Kurdish—still holds a strategic value for US presence in the Arab East. This helps the United States in its quest to check Iranian designs in the region and in its dominance in Iraq itself. Second, American troops in Iraq represent an essential tool for maintaining influence in the country and on the strategic outlook of the Iraqi government. Third, remaining in Iraq ensures long-term presence in the region at large, especially if future conditions necessitate ending the American presence at the Turkish Incirlik Air Base or the Qatari al-Udeid. This helps reassure American allies in the region, especially the Kurds, although any US confrontation with adversaries would undeniably be governed by what is in America’s interests.
The Issue of Sovereignty
Iraqi sovereignty was the foremost issue addressed by the Iran-friendly heads of parliamentary blocs in Iraq. Even militia commanders entered the fray with threats of military action to force an American withdrawal from the country, reminding everyone that they were responsible for the departure of American troops in 2011. This latter claim was questionable since it was actually the resistance in Sunni areas that pushed the troops out.
What regulates US presence in Iraq is a November 2008 bilateral agreement as well as an additional framework signed in 2011. They were reached during former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure and they govern the entry of troops and equipment.
It is important to point out that President Trump paid a visit to American troops in Germany on his way back from Iraq. Germany has a Status of Forces Agreement with the United States similar to Iraq’s. Trump met with American soldiers at Ramstein Air Base but did not meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel or other German officials. So why was the Iraq visit so controversial and why did it receive so much attention? There are several reasons:
- Since the United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 of 1991, Iraq’s sovereignty appears to have been diminished under a system of UN guardianship. This was followed by Chapter 7 designations threatening Iraq with sanctions if it does not comply with international dictates.
- This diminished sovereignty remained even after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which had made the original resolution necessary.
- Iraq’s sovereignty is also violated by the presence and influence of Iran in the country, deployment of Turkish troops according to a mutual understanding between Baghdad and Ankara, and the presence of the Islamic State, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, al-Qaeda fighters, and Iran-supported militias.
- Finally, continuing the battle against the remnants of Islamic State fighters necessitates aerial assistance from the United States, a condition that obviates any objection to the presence of American troops.
It is undeniable that President Trump’s visit to Iraq without Baghdad’s express approval was a violation of the country’s sovereignty. But Iran’s supporters in Iraq wanted to send a larger message than merely public consternation. As defenders of Iranian interests, they wanted to combine their objection to the visit with a clear attempt to complicate the presence of American troops in Iraq and to force their departure. Such a campaign could also be used to force the United States to lessen the pressure of the sanctions on Iran, which followed the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. As for the Iraqi government itself, there appears to be no plan for changing the ongoing security relationship with the United States at this time.