Iraq and the US withdrawal conundrum
Disagreement in Baghdad over the presence of US troops threatens to destabilise the country.
More than a month after the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling on United States troops to withdraw from Iraq, uncertainty regarding the status of US forces in the country persists. The move came in the aftermath of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of Iraq‘s Popular Mobilisation Units by US drones.
Although US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the resolution on January 10, local political actors have continued to press for a US withdrawal.
In mid-January, Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr called for a “million-man march” to protest against the presence of US troops in the country which took place on January 24 and attracted large crowds of his supporters.
Newly-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Allawi has not publicly expressed his opinion on the issue, but he will likely align with the people who nominated him, including al-Sadr and the pro-Iran factions.
Yet, despite this pressure from various political forces for the US to withdraw, there is by far no national consensus over it. Both the Sunni and Kurdish leadership in the country have stood up against the move and the issue has the potential to fuel sectarian tensions in the country.
The parliamentary vote on the resolution took place along sectarian lines. It was passed almost exclusively by the votes of Shia parties, such as Fatah, Sairoon, Hikma, Sadiqoon, and State of Law, which together command a majority in parliament. Kurdish and Sunni members of parliament largely boycotted the session.
The Shia anti-US vote marks a clear departure from political positions adopted by Shia political forces in 2003.
Seventeen years ago, the Shia and Kurdish communities largely welcomed the US invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. By contrast, the Sunni community viewed it as a disaster because it threatened to undo the privileged position its elite had occupied within the regime – a perception that turned into reality with the de-baathification process that the Americans launched.
Over the years, these attitudes have shifted, as Iran has come to play a significant role in Iraqi domestic politics. Many of the Shia parties have aligned with Tehran and as its confrontation with the US has intensified, they have also increasingly adopted anti-US stances.
The same process, however, has not been replicated among the Shia population. In fact, there have been increasingly anti-Iranian attitudes among Iraq’s Shia. According to the Baghdad-based Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies, 86 percent of Iraqi Shia had a favourable view of Iran in 2014, but just 41 percent did in 2019.
These attitudes have been reflected in the ongoing protests in Baghdad and Shia-majority areas in the centre and south of the country, which have been marked by anti-Iranian chants.
The response of the protesters to the assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis and the parliamentary vote against US military presence was to reject all foreign interference, not just that of the US.
The Sunni perspective
Attitudes among the Sunni community have also changed. Although many Sunnis opposed the US invasion of Iraq and in fact, a number of rebellions erupted in Sunni areas in its aftermath, over the past few years many Sunnis have come to see US troops as a stabilisation factor, at least in the short term.
Therefore, the talk of a US withdrawal has also caused much anxiety within the Sunni community and political parties.
There is a fear that if the US leaves, the Sunnis will face a resurgence of extremist groups. ISIL has been regrouping in many Sunni areas, and the Iraqi security forces – as well as Shia militias present in Sunni regions – are not seen as capable of addressing the threat of terror alone.
The US troops have also been seen as a balancing force against Iran’s influence in Iraq in Sunni areas. The Iran-backed PMUs are still deployed across the Sunni regions liberated from ISIL. Their presence has caused much tension among locals and is seen as a major barrier to the political stabilisation and return of the internally displaced people to these areas.
Some among the Sunni leadership also see the Americans as a fair arbiter between the different political forces in Baghdad. Since 2003, the Sunni parties have not been able to put together a united front in Baghdad and as a result have been increasingly sidelined in political matters. They fear that if the US were to leave Iraq, their marginalisation will deepen.
The Kurdish perspective
The Kurdish parties in Iraq have a long relationship with the US that predates the 2003 invasion. Washington has also played a major role in intra-Kurdish affairs, brokering a ceasefire in the late 1990s between the two biggest players on the Iraqi Kurdish political scene – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
It has also backed the Peshmerga forces loyal to the two parties in their fight against Saddam Hussein’s regime and has been seen as the main foreign power supporting Kurdish self-rule.
Although the autonomy of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is enshrined in the Iraqi constitution, Erbil has had some reasons to worry that its special status is under threat. In the aftermath of the 2017 independence referendum, Baghdad sent regular and irregular forces to secure a number of disputed areas in the north, including oil-rich Kirkuk, which led to violent clashes with the Peshmerga.
In recent months, talk of potential changes to the Iraqi constitution that could undermine the semi-autonomous KRI’s status have also worried Kurdish officials.
In this context, they see the US military presence in Iraq as an essential guarantee of Kurdish autonomy and a form of deterrence against aggression from Baghdad.
What is next?
If Iran-aligned Shia parties continue to push for a US withdrawal from Iraq, the already unstable political situation in the country could take a dark turn. Tensions between Baghdad and Erbil would likely intensify and could lead to a political paralysis of the central government.
It is also possible that such a move would fracture the Kurdish leadership. Iran, which has strong relations with a number of Kurdish parties, including the PUK, has the potential to undermine Kurdish unity and has done so in the past.
The fragmented Sunni parties will not be able to put up any serious resistance to a unilateral decision to expel US troops, either. But a stronger Iranian presence in Iraq would inevitably contribute to the growing feeling of insecurity and marginalisation among ordinary Sunnis. And just like in the past, such discontent could erupt into another armed uprising and result in the resurrection of ISIL.
Meanwhile, the US is also taking measures in response to pressure to pull out of Iraq.
In early February the Pentagon dispatched General Frank McKenzie, the top US commander for the Middle East, to talk to decision-makers in Baghdad. After the visit the general expressed cautious optimism but acknowledged that US-Iraqi military relations are “still in a period of turbulence”.
Washington has also taken steps to strengthen its ties with Erbil. KRI President Nechirvan Barzani met with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in late January. The Pentagon has also indicated that it will continue its support for the Peshmerga forces.
There have also been reports of the US bringing back a 2007 proposal for the formation of a Sunni region within Iraq, similar to the KRI, which would allow it to maintain presence in the western part of Iraq.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker visited the UAE in mid-January and met with Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, a prominent Sunni leader. Following that meeting, al-Halbousi reportedly held consultations with a number of other Sunni leaders to discuss the creation of a Sunni region. The outcome of these deliberations is still unclear, but Baghdad staunchly opposes such a plan, fearing the weakening of the central government.
At this point, Iraq seems set on a path towards more sectarian escalation, which could further destabilise the country and undermine the implementation of any political reforms that thousands of Iraqis have been protesting for since October last year.
There is a way to avoid a dangerous fallout of a unilateral expulsion of US troops and that is to have an open and honest dialogue with all political parties in the country. Shia parties have to come around and address the concerns of Sunnis, Kurds and minorities such as Christians and Yazidis who require international protection. A decision has to be made for the greater good of Iraq, not for the narrow political and sectarian interests of a select group of people.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.