In the wake of frequent attacks by Iraqi militia on U.S. military bases and the Iraqi prime minister’s repeated orders to expel U.S. forces, Iraq and America on Saturday kicked off the first round of bilateral dialogue to discuss ending the U.S.-led international coalition’s mission in Iraq.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry on Thursday said the two countries would launch the Higher Military Commission (HMC) to formulate a clear timetable for the duration of the presence of the U.S.-led international coalition advisors in Iraq and the gradual reduction of U.S.-led advisors on Iraqi soil.
WHY DO U.S. FORCES REMAIN IN IRAQ?
In 2003, by fabricating the pretext of “Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction,” America led its alliance to invade Iraq after neglecting strong international opposition and circumventing the United Nations Security Council.
However, the alleged weapons of mass destruction were never found, while hundreds of thousands of innocent lives perished in the prolonged war and conflict.
The U.S. aggressively dismantled Iraq’s state machinery through war, disrupting local political order and social stability, and creating a breeding ground for terrorism. In late 2011, the U.S. hastily withdrew from Iraq, providing an opportunity for extremist groups like Islamic State (IS) to grow.
The U.S. forces soon returned to Iraqi soil. In 2014, the IS militants captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and seized vast territories in Iraq’s west and north. The U.S.-led coalition to combat the IS subsequently made its presence in Iraq.
While the U.S. withdrew its combat troops from Iraq in December 2021, approximately 2,500 U.S. soldiers remain stationed in Iraq under the pretext of training Iraqi forces and serving as military advisors to combat IS militants.
WHAT IS IRAQI ATTITUDE TOWARDS U.S. FORCES?
Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in October last year, U.S. military bases in Iraq and Syria have faced about 150 attacks. An Iraqi Shiite militia calling itself “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” claimed responsibility for multiple attacks, saying that they were a response to U.S. support for Israel against Hamas.
In retaliation, the U.S. has recently conducted several airstrikes on Iraqi paramilitary forces within Iraqi soil, including a most recent one on Wednesday, resulting in about 20 deaths and multiple injuries.
On Jan. 4, U.S. forces targeted the headquarters of the Iraqi paramilitary Hashd Shaabi’s 12th brigade in the eastern part of Baghdad, causing the death of three, including the brigade leader Talib al-Saiedi, and injuring five.
Soon afterward, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Sudani issued repeated orders for U.S. forces to leave, accusing the U.S. of violating Iraqi sovereignty and the goals and principles of the international coalition, as well as destabilizing Iraq’s domestic security.
Additionally, Iraq sees a constantly growing anti-U.S. sentiment across the country, with various Shiite militia groups calling for the expulsion of U.S. forces.
Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organization affiliated with the Hashd Shaabi forces, condemned on Wednesday the U.S. airstrike as a “heinous crime” and urged the Iraqi government to take “swift and decisive action” to end the presence of all foreign forces in Iraq.
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq vowed Friday to continue its attacks on military bases housing U.S. forces until all U.S. troops leave the country, rejecting a proposed U.S.-Iraq commission to oversee a “transition” of the bilateral security partnership.
WILL U.S. FORCES WITHDRAW FROM IRAQ?
However, the scope of the proposed HMC remains a point of contention. While the Iraqi Foreign Ministry claims the HMC’s purpose is to discuss ending the coalition mission, the Pentagon maintains the talks will focus on broader security cooperation, not withdrawal.
Analysts believe that maintaining a military presence in Iraq allows the U.S. to influence the country’s political trajectory and deter neighboring nations, especially in countering the growing influence of the Iran-led “Shiite Crescent.” Whether the U.S. will truly withdraw from Iraq remains uncertain.
The Pentagon repeatedly emphasized on Thursday in a press briefing that “the HMC meeting is not a negotiation about the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq,” noting it “received no request from the government of Iraq to withdraw our forces.”
In fact, as early as January 2020, shortly after the U.S. killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and deputy commander of Iraq’s paramilitary Hashd Shaabi forces Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike near Baghdad airport, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to end the presence of foreign forces in Iraq. In 2021, Iraq announced the end of the U.S.-led coalition’s combat mission against the IS. However, about 2,500 U.S. troops remain stationed in Iraq now.
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq dismissed in an online statement on Friday the U.S. proposal of launching the HMC as a “deceptive tactic” designed to “buy more time” for its troops to carry out “more crimes to harm Iraqi people.”
The Iraqi Shiite militia group accused the U.S. of ignoring long-standing demands from the Iraqi parliament and public for a complete withdrawal, claiming it masked a “malicious agenda” in Iraq and the region.
Since last year, a wave of reconciliation has swept the Middle East after the Saudi Arabia-Iran reconciliation, and the regional countries’ awareness of strategic autonomy has strengthened.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict drags on and tensions in the Red Sea continue with spillover effects, leading to further escalation of anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiments, said Liu Xinlu, dean of the School of Arabic Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Against this backdrop, Iraq’s strategic importance becomes more prominent, and it increasingly becomes one of the geopolitical pillars that the United States cannot afford to lose, Liu said, noting that once withdrawing its troops, the U.S. will lose its ability to intervene in Iraq, leading to closer cooperation between Iraq and Iran, which contradicts the U.S. attempt to build an “anti-Iran alliance” in the region.
Iraqi military expert Abdullah al-Jubouri believes that America would not withdraw its forces from Iraq for strategic considerations, as it had paid a heavy price in terms of manpower, resources, and finances during the invasion of Iraq.
Besides, Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis are unlikely to support a U.S. withdrawal for fear of the strengthening of Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, al-Jubouri said.