Despite apparently simple procedural measures required to end the presence of foreign troops in Iraq, some experts argue that a withdrawal of US soldiers is unlikely to happen soon as neither side appears fully supportive of such a move.
In an extraordinary session on Sunday, two days after a US air strike killed Iranian and Iraqi commanders in Baghdad, the Iraqi parliament called on the government to end all foreign troop presence in Iraq and to cancel its request for assistance from the US-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group.
A day later, the US secretary of defence, Mark Esper, was forced to clarify that the United States has no plans to pull out militarily from Iraq, following reports citing a letter by the US military that it was preparing for “movement out of Iraq”.
Sarkawt Shams, a member of the Kurdish Future bloc in the Iraqi parliament, said the implementation of parliament’s non-binding resolution “relates to whether or not both sides … actually want” to end the US presence in Iraq.
“If there’s a political will to expel US troops, then the process won’t be complicated,” he said, adding, however, that an imminent withdrawal appeared unlikely.
“The resolution was only passed in an attempt to calm down public anger following the US air strike, while still maintaining US presence,” Shams told Al Jazeera, referring to Friday’s attack that killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis near Baghdad’s international airport.
The steps required for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq are straightforward, according to experts, who said the presence of the about 5,000 US troops – most of whom are in Iraq in an advisory capacity – is tied to an arrangement dating back to 2014.
Unlike earlier deployments, US troops currently in Iraq arrived as part of a request to the US from the Iraqi government to help train its security forces in the battle against ISIL, which in 2014 captured large swaths of Iraqi territory.
“The understanding was that the US troops would help Iraqis defeat ISIL. Following Baghdad’s victory in 2017, they’re no longer needed,” said Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
Before the vote in parliament, caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi told parliamentarians in the hall that it was in “the interests of both Iraq and US to end foreign troop presence in the country”, urging them to support the motion.
According to Kadhim, Abdul Mahdi’s move was unnecessary, but it gave him a sense of legitimacy and consensus.
“There’s no treaty that needs to be cancelled nor a new law needed to be drafted,” Kadhim said.
“The presence of US troops is based on an executive request for US troops which can be cancelled by an executive decision at any time,” he explained, saying that with a stroke of a pen, the undisclosed terms outlined in letters between former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and former US President Barack Obama, can be annulled.
“The only reason Abdul Mahdi went to parliament was because he’s in a caretaker role and didn’t want to seem like he was acting unilaterally.”
Abdul Mahdi stepped down in November amid months-long mass anti-government protests but remains in a caretaker position, a point which some observers have raised concern over.
But according to Iraqi legal expert Tareq Harb, the presence of a caretaker government is not an obstacle.
“The parliament’s vote gives Abdul Mahdi the authority and legitimacy to take measures to expel foreign troops in Iraq. All it requires is time and will,” Harb said, adding that the vote solidified the parliament’s support for him to proceed with such a measure.
“Now that the draft has passed, the implementation is in the hands of the current prime minister and whoever comes after him.”
Kadhim agreed: “As the commander-in-chief, Abdul Mahdi has full authority according to Iraqi law to carry out this decision until a new prime minister is voted in.”
‘Calming the anger’
Following the parliamentary vote, Abdul Mahdi announced that the government was preparing the legal framework for the implementation of the resolution.
According to a statement by his office, the prime minister also met US Ambassador Matthew Tueller on Monday to discuss measures to facilitate a roadmap for an amicable military withdrawal, while keeping the bilateral diplomatic relations intact.
Despite the apparent simplicity of the matter, however, analysts believe the move is unlikely to take place due to opposition within Iraq and the US to the move.
“Neither Iraq nor the US really want the troops expelled, unless the situation continues to escalate,” said Shams, who boycotted the vote along with many Sunni and Kurdish parliamentarians who oppose the move.
The assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis came after an attempt by hundreds of members and supporters of the pro-Iran paramilitary Hash al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces or PMF) to storm the US embassy in Baghdad amid rising anger over US air attacks against positions of Kataib Hezbollah – a member of the umbrella organisation – in Iraq and Syria.
Since the killings, rival Shia political leaders have called for the expulsion of US troops from Iraq, in an unusual show of unity among factions that have disagreed for months.
Despite the anger, Iraq analyst Zeidon Alkinani argued neither party wanted a withdrawal.
“With Iranian influence at its feet, the US is unlikely to leave Iraq. That would only provide for unilateral dominance from Iran in the region,” Alkinani said. “It would be symbolically harmful for Trump, who is facing an election and impeachment, to be kicked out of Iraq with a parliamentary vote.
“For the Iraqis, the vote was just a cost they had to pay the Iranian government to show neutrality in the aftermath of the killing of Soleimani,” he added.