The United States Ends its Combat Role in Iraq

At the recent meeting of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, negotiators decided to end the combat mission of US troops engaged in the fight against remnants of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and the transition to a purely advisory and training mission. This statement was geared mostly to the Iraqi domestic audience, as the bulk of American forces in Iraq, now down to about 2,500 personnel, have been mostly involved in a training mission. By touting the success of the Iraqi military while emphasizing the need for a US training mission under Iraqi sovereignty, a formula generally supported by most Iraqi factions, the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi hopes to isolate the pro-Iran Shia militias that are opposed to any US military role in Iraq.

Contrary to its recent decision to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan by September 11, the Biden Administration seems content to maintain a small number of US troops in Iraq for training purposes and intelligence support. It also hopes that a planned and expanded NATO role in Iraq, for the purposes of a military training mission, will make the US presence less conspicuous. Biden has received political flak from Republicans as well as some Democrats for his Afghanistan decision. Remembering the criticism that former President Barack Obama received for withdrawing US troops from Iraq in 2011, only to bring them back three years later when IS was on the march, Biden also wants to avoid another major controversy. In addition, he is undoubtedly hoping that the current US-Iran negotiations on the nuclear issue will result in an agreement that would have an ancillary benefit of stopping the Shia militia attacks on US personnel in Iraq.

Iraqi Sovereignty and Foreign Troops: A Brief History

Iraq has long been sensitive to the issue of foreign troops on its soil, believing they infringe on the country’s sovereignty. For example, when in 1948 the Iraqi monarchical government negotiated the so-called Portsmouth Treaty, or the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, with former colonial power Great Britain to regularize a continuing British military presence in the country, the terms of the treaty were so controversial inside Iraq that they sparked large-scale protests that prompted the Iraqi parliament to refuse to ratify it. Some historians believe this incident contributed to the military coup a decade later against the pro-British monarchy. Hence, it was not surprising to many students of the Middle East that the post-2003 US occupation of Iraq would result in an insurgency, a painful lesson that the George W. Bush Administration came to realize much too late.

In 2011, President Obama was criticized by his political opponents in the United States for his supposed eagerness to withdraw all US troops from Iraq at the end of that year. The real story, however, was that he wanted to maintain a residual force in Iraq. 

In 2011, President Obama was criticized by his political opponents in the United States for his supposed eagerness to withdraw all US troops from Iraq at the end of that year. The real story, however, was that he wanted to maintain a residual force in Iraq. When the Iraqi government refused to allow for legal immunity for US troops (on which the Pentagon had insisted), he then made the decision to pull out. Despite the fact that many of the Iraqi officials at the time owed their positions to US support, they did not want to look weak on the fundamental issue of sovereignty and, therefore, refused to grant the immunity request.

In January 2020, President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Shia militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis sparked large-scale protests, particularly among Iraq’s Shia population, and led the Iraqi parliament to pass a resolution calling for all foreign forces to leave the country. Although the resolution was non-binding, it reflected the mood of the people who not only saw the attack as an infringement on Iraqi sovereignty, but feared that Iraq was being dragged into a US-Iran war. This incident followed Trump’s controversial statement in 2019 that he wanted to use the Al Asad Air Base west of Baghdad to “watch Iran.” He later said, in reaction to the calls in early 2020 for the United States to leave Iraq, that this base cost billions of dollars and “we’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.”

Strategic Dialogue and Support for Kadhimi

The US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue began under the Trump Administration in June 2020 once US-Iraqi tensions eased. The aim was to reduce the American military footprint in Iraq and to shore up the government of Prime Minister Kadhimi, who was seen as a more effective leader than his predecessors. Trump invited Kadhimi to the White House in August 2020 and pledged to reduce the roughly 5,000 US troops in Iraq. By January 2021, this force was down to 2,500. Although Biden was critical of Trump’s foreign policy in a number of areas, he did not disagree with this approach. US military commanders in 2020 said that the Iraqi military had made important strides in its effectiveness against IS cells, but they also asserted that the military training mission was not yet complete.

US military commanders in 2020 said that the Iraqi military had made important strides in its effectiveness against IS cells, but they also asserted that the military training mission was not yet complete.

Significantly, Kadhimi was the first Arab leader whom President Biden called after he assumed the presidency. This indicates that the Biden team sees Kadhimi as an effective leader who has the difficult task of balancing Iraq’s relations with its neighbors (including Iran) while trying to rein in the pro-Iran Shia militias. Although a Shia himself, Kadhimi is angry that some of these Shia militias, like Kataeb Hezbollah, are operating outside of the government’s jurisdiction. In response to two missile attacks in February 2021—one on the Irbil airport and another on the US embassy grounds in Baghdad—Kadhimi stated to his cabinet: “Iraq will not be an arena for settling scores, and the absurd missiles are an attempt to impede the government’s progress and embarrass it. But our security services will reach the perpetrators, and they will be brought before the public opinion.”

The April 7, 2021 meeting of the Strategic Dialogue underscored the US partnership with Iraq on a number of issues, ranging from economic cooperation to climate change, but the security issue was the one that garnered the most attention. The joint statement issued after the meeting said that both countries “confirmed that the mission of U.S. and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq, with the timing to be established in upcoming technical talks.” This transition, the statement read, is a reflection of the strategic partnership and “ensures support for the ISF’s (Iraqi Security Forces) continued efforts to ensure ISIS can never again threaten Iraq’s stability.” In a reference to Iraqi sovereignty, the statement underscored that facilities in which US and coalition troops are stationed “are Iraqi bases and their presence is solely in support of Iraq’s effort in the fight against ISIS.”

Negative Reaction from Some Militias

Not surprisingly, the Coordinating Body of the Iraqi Resistance Factions, which includes pro-Iran militias like Kataeb Hezbollah, sharply criticized the Strategic Dialogue statement for not including “a clear and explicit declaration of the final withdrawal date for the occupation forces.” It vowed to continue to attack US forces in Iraq until such a date was announced. For these militias, the statement’s emphasis on the transition from a combat to a training mission is meaningless because it would still allow US forces to remain in the country.

It appears that Kadhimi is banking on the majority of Iraqis, including most Shia, for a continuing US military training mission as long as IS has not been fully eradicated.

It appears that Kadhimi is banking on the majority of Iraqis, including most Shia, to accept the need for a continuing US military training mission as long as IS has not been fully eradicated. Indeed, there have been some attacks in recent months that suggest this threat remains. In January 2021, a pro-government militia force, the Popular Mobilization Forces, was ambushed by an IS cell, resulting in the killing of 11 of the militiamen. That same month, twin suicide bombings killed 32 people in a market in Baghdad. And on April 15, 2021, a car bomb in the Sadr City section of Baghdad killed four people and wounded 17. Although the Iraqi military has achieved some successes—several high ranking IS commanders have been killed in recent months—it is obvious that many IS cells are still active.

An Enhanced NATO Role?

Despite having an ally in Kadhimi in the anti-IS campaign, one of the chief challenges for the Biden Administration in Iraq is to protect US and coalition forces and contractors from attacks from pro-Iran militias, militarily and politically. Concerning the former, Biden ordered an air strike on one of these militias which it deemed responsible for the attack on the Irbil airport in February that killed one US contractor. Significantly, the US air strike on the militia group was just over the border in Syria, undoubtedly to avoid a political backlash if it had been done within Iraq. Concerning the latter, NATO has announced that, in conjunction with the Iraqi government, it would increase the number of military trainers in Iraq from 500 to 4,000. This allied mission would be made up of contingents from Britain, Turkey, and Denmark and led by a Danish commander.

It is unclear when this enlarged military training mission would arrive in Iraq, but the Biden Administration may have been behind the idea, as leader of NATO, so as to make the US military training mission less conspicuous. However, the inclusion of more British and Turkish forces, even for the purpose of training, may not be advisable, as Britain was Iraq’s former colonial master, which carries a lot of baggage, and Turkey already has some troops in northern Iraq pursuing Kurdistan Workers’ Party militants. These actions have generated controversy because they are seen in some political circles, particularly among Iraqi Kurds, as leading to a possible permanent stay of the foreign forces in Iraq.

Between Iran and a Hard Place

If the Vienna talks succeed and both the United States and Iran rejoin the nuclear agreement, then there is a chance that the pro-Iran militia attacks on US personnel in Iraq would cease.

But the bigger issue for the Biden team right now is how all of this relates to its desire to return to the Iran nuclear deal, as indirect negotiations are now taking place in Vienna, Austria. If these talks succeed and both the United States and Iran rejoin the nuclear agreement, then there is a chance that the pro-Iran militia attacks on US personnel in Iraq would cease, as Tehran would then be more inclined to weigh in and push these militias to desist from such attacks. However, it is not clear at this stage if the nuclear talks will succeed or if Iran will be able to rein in the militias. It may be in Iran’s interest not to curtail the actions of these militias even if a nuclear deal with Washington is reached because they serve as a useful pressure tactic on the United States that Tehran could turn on or off depending on the circumstances. It is also unclear if the Biden team is raising the issue of Iran’s support for Shia militias in the Arab world during the current talks in Vienna.

Recommendations for US Policy

Because US casualties in Iraq since 2014 have been so low, there is no strong US public pressure on Biden to withdraw US troops from that country at this point. For various reasons, Biden chose to announce the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, not Iraq, perhaps because the United States was still involved in the original mission in the former after 20 years—fighting the Taliban—whereas its mission in Iraq had changed since 2014 and is currently focused on preventing an IS comeback. Progressives in Congress like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Representative Ro Khanna (D-California) have called on Biden to withdraw troops from Iraq in addition to Afghanistan, but the majority of Democrats have refrained from doing so. Biden’s chief antagonists are the Republicans in Congress who are sounding alarm bells about his Afghanistan decision. If he were to do the same in Iraq, he would face even more criticism as Republicans would remind the public about the consequences of the Obama-Biden Administration’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2011.

Nonetheless, given Iraq’s sensitivities about sovereignty and foreign troops, it may be advisable for the Biden Administration to reduce the number of US troops in Iraq further if the Iraqi military becomes more effective against IS cells. Washington could still support the Iraqi military through intelligence sharing and possible air strikes, if need be. A reduced US presence over the course of Biden’s presidential term would have the advantage of removing US military personnel from harm’s way and serve as less of a political lightening rod for certain groups. It is also likely that the US image would improve in Iraq if more US resources were shifted from the military to the civilian sphere, as Iraq still suffers from high youth unemployment, poor human rights, occasional energy shortages, and lack of adequate housing for hundreds of thousands of citizens who had lived under IS rule. If the Iraqi population sees improvements in these areas with US help, then bilateral relations would be on a much more sustainable course.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here