The Coronavirus pandemic in the United States, which is having a devastating effect on many nations, has shown just how incapable the current US administration is when it comes to solving any problems, including those related to foreign policy. It seems that the time when Washington was able to resolve many issues on the world stage by waving a magic wand are over. We live in a different world now and neither Donald Trump nor his team are prepared for it. And this is especially apparent in Iraq where Washington seems to be bogged down and does not know how to extricate itself from a mess in the nation that the United States ended up in at the behest of great puppeteers, i.e. former US presidents.
In an attempt to somehow save the American administration’s face, on 7 April, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ceremoniously announced that the United States would hold strategic talks with Iraq in the middle of June. “All strategic issues between our two countries will be on the agenda, including the future presence of the United States forces in that country, and how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq,” stated Mike Pompeo.
Many words were said, which sounded more like meaningless blather, but the following phrase did stand out. Apparently, no other task is more important for Washington than supporting an “independent and sovereign Iraq”. It seems that since 2003, when the USA, under false pretext, used brute force to unceremoniously invade the Iraqi Republic, none of the US administrations have been able to help Iraq become an independent and sovereign nation. Moreover, US occupiers, thoughtlessly and without a care, completely destroyed the government structure, and the manufacturing and agricultural sectors in Iraq thus plunging the Iraqi people into poverty. Due to the conflict and subsequent occupation, Iraq ended up in the same state that it had been in when first established out of the Mosul, Baghdad and Basra vilayets (former administrative divisions of the Ottoman empire). At the moment, all of these regions are seeking autonomy and are not too eager to be ruled by the central government in Baghdad.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the public anger directed towards the occupying forces on Iraqi soil has not subsided as yet. We would like to remind our readers that Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr called for a “million-strong” march to demand the withdrawal of US troops that took place in the capital of Iraq and other cities and towns in January 2020. In his speech addressed to the citizens of the nation, the Shia leader insisted that US armed forces ought not to be allowed to use the Iraqi airspace or military bases in the country’s territory for their needs. Newspaper The New York Times estimated that approximately 200,000 to 250,000 people had taken part in the protests. At that time, the Council of Representatives of Iraq passed a resolution calling on the government to end all foreign troop presence in Iraq and prohibit them “from using its land, airspace or water for any reason”.
However, according to Iraqi media outlets, Washington makes its own decisions about the movement of its armed forces in Iraq as well as the entire Middle East. Baghdad-based newspaper Al Mustaqilla has reported the protests drew very large crowds thus demonstrating the fact that, at present, many Iraqis do not think the presence of US troops is a prerequisite to national and regional security, and are trying to rid their country of American armed forces.
Many experts have said that even if Washington were to decide to withdraw its servicemen, it would take a substantial amount of time to create alternative supply routes and build the required infrastructure for the US armed forces in the region. Currently, American military facilities in Iraq do not only serve the US interests in this nation. The military bases play an important role during operations that the United States conducts in Afghanistan, Syria and the territories neighboring Iran. In addition, Iraq is a crucial element within the structure that safeguards US interests in the Persian Gulf region.
It is unfortunate that the Iraqi government still has no unified view on the possible withdrawal of US troops from their nation, since various groups within it have radically different opinions on this issue. Seventeen years ago, Shia and Kurdish communities in Iraq, by and large, welcomed the US invasion and the ousting of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, Iraqi Sunnis viewed such developments as disastrous because they posed a threat to the privileged status held by its elites within the government. And their concerns turned out to be entirely justified after the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority had first undertook the de-Baathification policy in Iraq.
With passing years, these views have changed because Iran began to play an important role in Iraq’s domestic policies. Many Shia parties joined forces with Tehran, and as the confrontation between Iran and the United States intensified, they increasingly adapted an anti-American stance. However, the rest of the Shiite community did not follow suit. In fact, anti-Iranian sentiments are being increasingly felt among Iraqi Shias. According to data from the Baghdad-based Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies (IIACSS), 86% of Iraqi Shias had a positive view of Iran in 2014, but the number was only 41% in 2019. Such sentiments have found an outlet in ongoing protests taking place in Baghdad and in Shia-dominated southern regions of the country. And anti-Iranian chants can be heard during such rallies.
Views within the Sunni community have changed too. Although many Iraqi Sunnis had been against the US invasion at the beginning, after a number of revolts broke out in Sunni regions during the last few years, many Sunnis started to view US forces as a stabilizing influence at least in the short-term. Hence, discussions about the withdrawal of American troops also caused a great deal of concern among Sunni communities and political parties. There is fear that if the United States were to leave, Iraqi Sunnis could face a resurgence of extremist movements. Daesh (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) has regrouped in many Sunni-dominated territories, but Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias in these regions are not considered to be capable of dealing with such a threat by themselves.
US forces were also regarded as a counter-balance to Iranian influence in Sunni parts of Iraq. Tehran-backed Shiite militant units remain deployed in Sunni-dominated regions liberated from Daesh (banned in Russia). Their presence has been a source of great tensions among locals and is viewed as a key obstacle to stabilization of the political landscape there and to the return of internally displaced people to these regions. A number of Sunni leaders also view Americans as fair moderators when it comes to resolution of disputes between various political forces in Baghdad. Since 2003, Sunni parties have been unable to form a united front in Baghdad, and, as a result, they have been increasingly sidelined when it comes to political processes. They, therefore, fear that if the USA were to leave Iraq, they would be further marginalized.
Kurdish parties in Iraq have had a long-standing relationship with the United States that precedes the 2003 invasion. Washington also played an important role in internal Kurdish affairs by helping to broker a ceasefire at the end of 1990s between two of the biggest players in Iraq’s Kurdish political landscape, i.e. the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). It also backed Peshmerga forces, loyal to both sides in their fight against Saddam Hussein’s regime, that viewed the United States as the only foreign power to support the idea of Kurdish autonomy. Autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan was enshrined into the Constitution of Iraq, yet Erbil has reasons for concern that its special status is under threat. After an independence referendum for Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2017, Baghdad sent its regular as well as irregular forces to ensure stability in several disputed regions in the north of the nation, including the oil-rich Kirkuk Governorate, which led to fierce clashes with Peshmerga forces. In recent months, discussions about possible amendments to the Iraqi constitution that could undermine Kurdistan’s semi-autonomous status have also been a source of concern for Kurdish officials. In such a climate, they view the US military presence in Iraq as a key guarantee of Kurdish autonomy and as a means of deterring aggression from Baghdad.
So what is next? If Shia parties united by Iran continue to demand the United States withdraw its troops from Iraq, the already unstable situation in the nation could take a turn for the worse. Tensions between Baghdad and Erbil are likely to rise and may lead to political paralysis within the central government. It is possible that the removal of American forces would also have a detrimental effect on the Kurdish leadership. Iran, which has close ties with a number of Kurdish parties, can potentially undermine Kurdish unity as it did in the past.
The fragmented Sunni parties will also not be able to put up serious opposition to a unilateral decision to remove US troops from Iraq. And an increased Iranian presence in Iraq will inevitably result in increased feelings of vulnerability and marginalization among common Sunnis. And just as in the past, such discontent could lead to yet another armed revolt and subsequently, to the resurrection of Daesh (a terrorist group banned in Russia).
In the meantime, the United States has also been taking measures in response to pressure applied on it to withdraw its forces from Iraq. At the beginning of February, the Pentagon sent General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, to conduct negotiations with individuals responsible for making decisions in Baghdad. After the visit, he expressed cautious optimism about the current situation but also admitted that the US-Iraqi military ties were still turbulent. Washington has also taken steps to strengthen its relations with Erbil. President of the Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani met with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And an announcement was made there that the Pentagon would continue to support Peshmerga forces. Statements were also made about the fact that the United States had retracted its 2007 offer to create a Sunny region in Iraq, similar to Kurdistan, which would have allowed Washington to retain its presence in the western part of Iraq.
At this point in time, Iraq appears to be on the brink of yet another, even bigger inter-religious conflict that could destabilize the nation even further and undermine efforts to implement any of the political reforms which tens of thousands of Iraqis have been protesting against since October of last year. There is a way to avoid untoward consequences of a unilateral decision to remove American troops from Iraqi territories and that is to hold open and honest talks with all the political parties in the nation. Shia parties need to come to their senses and resolve issues faced by Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, who all need safeguarding by the international community. And the decision should be made to the benefit of everyone in Iraq, and not in the narrow political and religious interests of a particular group of people.
Victor Mikhin, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.