Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has played a key role in Iraq’s religious and political spheres, particularly as a staunch opponent of vilayet e-faqih.
On July 26, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced that the United States would conclude its combat role in Iraq by December 31. Alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was visiting Washington, Biden said that the U.S. forces’ new role in the country would be “to continue to train, to assist, to help, and to deal with ISIS as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.” The announcement appears to be more of a rebranding of the U.S. troops’ current role in Iraq, which is already almost entirely focused on training and support missions rather than combat. Biden’s meeting with Kadhimi – the first face-to-face talks between the two leaders – was part of the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue’s fourth and final round. In April, the dialogue’s third round included an agreement in principle between Baghdad and Washington to end the U.S. combat mission in the country but did not establish a timetable for implementation.
The latest iteration of the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, part of the strategic framework agreement signed in 2008, was launched in June 2020, a month after Kadhimi received the Iraqi Parliament’s vote of confidence to serve as prime minister. At the time, Iraq was facing mounting domestic challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic. Concerns were also heightened then about Iraq being a battleground for a U.S.-Iranian conflict after the killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qassim Suleimani, and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by the administration of former President Donald J. Trump. The killing of Suleimani and Muhandis pushed the Iraqi Parliament to vote to expel all foreign troops from the country. While the vote was nonbinding, it conveyed a clear message of anger and frustration.
The U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, which covers a wide range of topics, has provided a chance to improve ties between Baghdad and Washington that were strained for a variety of reasons during the tenure of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who resigned in November 2019 following demonstrations across Iraq over corruption, unemployment, lack of services, and foreign interference. In August 2020, Kadhimi took his first trip to the United States and met Trump for the dialogue’s second round. Trump vowed to reduce the number of U.S. forces in Iraq, which at that point numbered around 5,200. By early 2021, troop levels had been reduced to about 2,500.
Notably, Kadhimi was the first Arab leader to speak with Biden after the president assumed office in January. This demonstrated the continued importance of Iraq for Washington and also suggested that the Biden administration viewed Kadhimi as an effective partner. That Kadhimi returned to Washington in July for a second official visit in less than a year is further evidence of the strength of this relationship.
Providing “Some Political Cover” for Kadhimi
On the ground, it is unlikely that Biden’s July 26 announcement will result in a significant change according to Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, deputy chief of mission in Iraq, and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. In an email interview, he said, “The Biden administration has been careful to limit retaliatory strikes against pro-Iranian militias in response to attacks against American forces. That caution will continue, although an attack that causes American casualties will put much greater pressure on the Biden administration to respond forcefully.” Ford suggested that, “Over the long term, if militia attacks generate a stream of American casualties, the Biden administration will reconsider the U.S. military presence in Iraq, because public support for the military presence, including from the liberal side of the Democratic Party, will be limited.”
Rather than signaling a notable change in U.S. policy on the ground in Iraq, one aim of Biden’s announcement may have been to demonstrate support for Kadhimi, who has been under pressure from Iranian-aligned militias to expel foreign troops from Iraq. The administration “hopes to provide some political cover to the Iraqi prime minister, whom it considers to be a friend whose vision for the Iraqi state is compatible with American interests,” Ford said, adding that “the Biden administration prefers to keep a small American force deployed in Iraq.” He said the Biden administration views the 2011 withdrawal as a mistake, but neither Biden nor Kadhimi wants a major U.S. military commitment in Iraq.
At the same time, the United States wants a reduction in Iran’s influence in Iraq and an end to Iranian-aligned militias’ attacks on U.S. personnel in the country, which increased after the killing of Suleimani and Muhandis. One reason why U.S.-Iraqi ties soured during Abdul Mahdi’s tenure was that he failed to restrain elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces that are backed by Iran. If the Iraqi state brings the PMF under its authority, that could lessen the frequency of militia attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq and decrease Iran’s influence in the country.
The United States is not willing to lose Iraq to Iran. Anthony Cordesman wrote, “The United States can live with a stalemate or failure in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. If the United States fails in Iraq, it fails in the entire Gulf region. If it succeeds in building either a real strategic partner or in creating a strong and independent Iraq, it checkmates Iran and secures the region.” Standing by Iraq and Kadhimi’s government could help consolidate U.S. interests in Iraq, and this is one reason why it is unlikely the United States will repeat its move in Afghanistan and fully depart from Iraq.
Another aim of Biden’s announcement seems to be driven by Washington’s interest in increasing its popularity in the country over the long term. By showing its commitment to Iraq, the United States hopes to gain greater public support for its presence in the country from the Kurds, secular Shias, many Sunnis, and most ethnic and religious minority groups, particularly the Christians and Yazidis. If the United States can achieve this, it could strengthen Washington’s position in Iraq. During Abdul Mahdi’s tenure, the United States expected the Iraqi government to do more to ensure the safety of minority groups. These groups do not want the United States to depart Iraq because it is likely to leave them vulnerable to attacks from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. That is an additional reason why the United States is unlikely to leave Iraq anytime soon. While Kadhimi’s government pledged to protect the rights of minority groups, there has been little trust in the state over recent years. Kadhimi will need to rebuild trust with these populations, and this cannot be done overnight. The Iraqi government will have to prove that it is more than just talk and is seriously working to put their protection and welfare as one of its top priorities. The United States will also continue taking measures to prevent a resurgence of ISIL, which has recently shown signs of renewed strength in Iraq, apparently taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak, internal turmoil, and U.S.-Iraqi tensions. Ahead of Kadhimi’s visit to Washington, Iraq’s foreign minister expressed the need for continued support from the United States to defeat ISIL. According to the White House readout of the Biden-Kadhimi meeting, the two leaders “committed to a continued security partnership to ensure that ISIS can never resurge.”
More Space for Kadhimi to Maneuver
Within Iraq, the Fatah Alliance – which comprises the main “pro-Iran” components of the PMF – welcomed Biden’s announcement. When asked whether the move will reduce Iranian-aligned militias’ pressure on Kadhimi to expel foreign troops, Samir Sumaidaie, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United States, said, “The short answer is: Yes!” He explained, “The announcement to end the combat mission of American troops is a rebranding exercise.” It is meant to enable Kadhimi to present it back home as an achievement and “positive response to the demand of ‘expelling the occupier’ made by Iranian-supported militias.” He continued, though, that “this has to be seen in the context of Iran’s desire to lower the temperature of its confrontation with the U.S. at a time of transition of power in Iran and the prioritizing of nuclear talks with the U.S. So, most of the Iranian-leaning political organizations in Iraq have welcomed the announcement leaving the most hard-line militias holding out for a total withdrawal. This is a new point of equilibrium, which calms down the clamor while still maintaining some pressure.”
Regarding what Iraq wants from the United States at this stage, Sumaidaie said, “It depends which Iraq you are talking about. The state of Iraq is compromised. Political will is fragmented. The PM and the Cabinet do not decide or represent the policy of the state. Real power is in the hands of political and militia leaders loyal to Iran but keen to maintain the facade of an independent Iraq, because it is convenient and expedient. Popular sentiment is opposed to the political establishment because of its failure to deliver services and a working economy, its rampant corruption and its subservience to Iran.”
While the Iraqi government appears weak, it is likely that some of Washington’s regional partners will join the United States in supporting Kadhimi’s government and working to reduce Iranian influence. In June, Jordan’s king, Egypt’s president, and Iraq’s president met in Baghdad. This was the fourth summit of its kind among the three leaders, but the first official visit by an Egyptian president to Iraq since the 1990s. Seemingly alluding to Iran, Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said after the summit, “Iraq must be isolated from regional interventions.” While the bloc seeks to establish greater economic ties, it also aims to counter Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
During Kadhimi’s meeting with Biden, they also discussed economic cooperation. On July 23, the United States announced the donation of 500,000 doses of coronavirus vaccines and nearly $155 million in additional humanitarian assistance for the country and Iraqi refugees. With Iraq’s frail economy, Kadhimi’s government needs economic support. Biden also expressed U.S. support for Iraq’s October parliamentary elections. Holding early elections was one of Kadhimi’s priorities when he assumed office. However, there have been signs lately that indicate the support within Iraq for the elections is becoming weaker, such as Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to boycott the elections. It also remains to be seen if all the protest movement parties will participate in the elections.
Washington seems willing to continue its commitment to Iraq in general and Kadhimi in particular. Biden’s announcement shows such support. In addition to deterring Iran, the United States appears to be interested in erasing the image of Iraq being an “endless war.” Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute, said, “Kadhimi gets to return to Iraq with a political win, which is the announcement of the change in the U.S. military mission in Iraq. Biden gets to say that he ended a ‘forever war’ in Iraq. This is a win-win for both Kadhimi and Biden.” He continued, “Moving forward, the Biden team will want to emphasize the nonmilitary engagement that the U.S. has in Iraq, focusing on supporting fair elections, development assistance, infrastructure and economic support, and support for IDPs. In essence, the Biden administration wants the American public to stop thinking of Iraq as a warzone.”
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