Debate on ouster of foreign troops from Iraq shows US caught in web of own 'failure'

“It was rotten from the beginning," said Karim Bitar, a Middle East expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris.
Sunday 19/01/2020
U.S. Soldiers walk past a site of Iranian bombing at Ain al-Asad air base, in Anbar, Iraq, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. (AP)
U.S. Soldiers walk past a site of Iranian bombing at Ain al-Asad air base, in Anbar, Iraq, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. (AP)

BAGHDAD - When it led the invasion into Iraq in 2003, the United States promised “Iraqi freedom,” democracy and prosperity. However, 17 years later, its troops may be ousted from a country beset by the opposite.

After a parliamentary vote, Iraq’s government is preparing to order foreign forces out of the country in retaliation for the US killing of top Iranian and Iraqi commanders in a drone strike in Baghdad.

Analysts said the troops would leave a country with inefficient institutions and rampant corruption, sectarian politics and cities still flattened after years of war.

“It’s an unmitigated failure” of long-term US planning for Iraq, said Karim Bitar, a Middle East expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris. “It was rotten from the beginning.”

He said the US-crafted Iraqi Constitution, which formalised power-sharing across religions and ethnicities, had deepened divisions. The 2005 document was meant to be the foundation of a state of institutions but it leaves more questions unanswered.

What happens to lands claimed by both the federal and autonomous Kurdish governments? The constitution leaves it to be resolved later.

What if the prime minister resigns? The document left out provisions for that, which prompted a legal crisis when Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi stepped down in December.

Many key laws were never properly legislated, leaving loopholes for strongmen to pursue their own interests.

“The constitution is constantly violated,” an Iraqi government official admitted.

The other pillar of a democratic system -- the ballot box -- has not fared much better.

“Elections meant to be a model for others have turned to community consensus,” Bitar said, because parties trade and buy votes instead of truly campaigning.

The recent anti-government rallies called for an overhaul of the voting system but amendments passed in December by parliament contradicted protester demands.

Demonstrators slammed widespread graft among state institutions, which often make hiring decisions based on nepotism or bribery. Iraq’s Integrity Commission publishes near-daily updates on the millions of dollars siphoned off by government officials in recent years.

US companies working in Iraq since the invasion have been repeatedly accused of bribing government officials to get contracts worth billions of dollars.

While Washington repeatedly urged US firms to invest more in Iraq to expand the private sector, it also maintains that American nationals should not travel there because of instability.

Indeed, a majority of the 17 years since the US invasion have been bloody, marred by an anti-American insurgency, sectarian warfare and the rise of jihadists.

Bitar traced the instability to a single US decision: dissolving the Iraqi Army in 2003.

“It was the biggest strategic error, a dangerous parallel to the de-Nazification of Germany after World War II,” he said.

The vacuum left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men angry and armed and allowed militias, including the Islamic State (ISIS), to flourish and impose their rule.

ISIS, which included former members of the Iraqi Army, was fought by Al-Hashed al-Shaabi, a network of Shia armed groups that have been incorporated into the state.

Saddam Hussein’s soldiers, ISIS jihadists and Hashed factions have all been opposed by the United States but the last of the three is proving to be a massive thorn in Washington’s side.

The United States sees Hashed as the Iraqi extension of Iran, which the US administration considers its regional foe.

“What America has not done is translate the military strength into political leverage,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

The United States had long prioritised Iraq’s stability over real democracy and state-building, he said, which led to “the failure of the American project in Iraq.”

Now, Iraq is threatening to oust foreign forces from its soil, including 5,200 US troops.

Washington insists its troops will stay, despite a controversial letter from a top US defence official in Baghdad saying forces were preparing to “move out.”

US President Donald Trump said an ouster would prompt devastating sanctions on Iraq, whose officials countered that would only send Baghdad further into Tehran’s orbit.

The war of words has eclipsed the protest movement, whose activists were mostly born just before 2003 and have called for, among other things, “Iraqi freedom.”

As protesters slammed Iran for having too much sway in Iraq, they also hinted at another desire: a return to the presidential system in place under Saddam.

“We used to have one dictator. Now we have a lot of small dictators,” said one protester in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have begun holding banners that read, “No to Iran. No to the US!”

“We just want to live free,” the protester added.