US Congress chips away at law used to justify Soleimani strike

House of Representatives votes to repeal the 2002 authorisation of the Iraq war as President Biden backs a review of US posture.

A US soldier is seen during a handover ceremony of Taji military base north of Baghdad from US-led coalition troops to Iraqi security forces August 2020 [File: Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters]

The House of Representatives has voted to repeal the United States’ 2002 declaration of war against Iraq, a law used by former President Donald Trump to justify the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

Thursday’s action, coming on a bipartisan vote of 268 to 161, now must be approved by the Senate and will accelerate Congress’s reassessment of the US military posture in the Middle East with President Joe Biden’s backing.

The Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) had been granted to former President George W Bush in 2002 enabling the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Nearly 20 years later, the law remains in place and has been used by successive presidents to justify a variety of US military strikes in the region including the one ordered by Trump that killed Soleimani outside the Baghdad airport in January 2020. Many members of Congress viewed Trump’s order as unjustified and reckless.

“The Iraq War has been over for nearly a decade. The authorisation passed in 2002 is no longer necessary in 2021,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in Senate floor remarks on Wednesday.

Laying the groundwork for a future Senate vote to repeal the 2002 AUMF, Schumer said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider a bill next week that would also repeal a 1991 congressional authorisation for the first US Gulf War.

The Biden administration said this week that the US “has no ongoing military activities that rely solely on the 2002 AUMF as a domestic legal basis” and its repeal “would likely have minimal impact on current military operations”.

“The President is committed to working with the Congress to ensure that outdated authorizations for the use of military force are replaced with a narrow and specific framework appropriate to ensure that we can continue to protect Americans from terrorist threats,” the White House said in a statement.

Without a replacement authorisation, however, that addresses modern-day circumstances in Iraq, repeal of the US law faces scepticism from both Republican and Democratic legislators in the Senate.

The Defense Department lawyers in the prior Trump administration had strongly opposed a stand-alone repeal of the 2002 Iraq AUMF because it would remove the authority for US military action against the militia groups.

Nevertheless, there is broad support among Democrats in Congress for repeal of the 2002 authorisation of war in Iraq, as well as an earlier 2001 authorisation Congress passed related to al-Qaeda and Afghanistan.

“Repealing it now will not alter our current operations against al-Qaeda or ISIL (ISIS), but it will ensure that a future president cannot misuse it for new military actions Congress never intended,” Steny Hoyer, the House’s majority leader said in a statement after the vote on Thursday.

“Far too often, presidents have chosen to reinterpret outdated AUMFs instead of working with Congress as the Constitution requires,” Hoyer said.

Biden has put in motion plans to withdraw 3,500 US and allied foreign troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks. There are about 3,000 US soldiers still in Iraq, according to Department of Defense numbers, but no specific timeline for their withdrawal has been set.

Source: Al Jazeera