Iran wants to rule Iraq without US presence
Calls by Iran-backed Iraqi militia leaders for the withdrawal of US troops have grown in the past month but it’s far from clear the efforts will be successful.
The militia leaders have the loyalty of fighters enlisted in the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and are represented by the Fatah Alliance and its allies in parliament. They are rallying behind legislation that proposes to sever military and, by extension, political ties with the United States.
Fadhel Jabir, a member of the Fatah-aligned al-Sadiqoun bloc, said the bid to expel foreign troops is not exclusive to US servicemen, hinting that Turkish soldiers would also be asked to leave their bases in Iraq.
Jabir’s remarks echoed calls by the leader of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, Qais al-Khazali, who confidently predicted that the legislation would pass with ease in parliament. “I think more than half the members of parliament reject the presence of American military forces as a matter of principle,” Khazali, who represents a 15-member bloc in parliament, told the Associated Press.
Iraqi media outlets reported that a draft law had been submitted but there is little evidence that corroborates the claim. The draft, versions of which were leaked online, has not been officially presented to parliament for a vote.
Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi said he has not received any bill focused explicitly on the expulsion of all US troops from Iraq, reported Baghdad Today News. He did say, however, that a vote in the coming legislative term would look at “determining America’s presence and the timeline of its stay in the country.” This implies that US troops could be staying in Iraq longer.
Iraqi militia leaders appear to have overlooked the country’s entrenched dependence on US assistance — both military and economic. Iraq’s post-2003 political system was heavily shaped by the United States. The militia leaders skimmed over the objection of political figureheads to an early US withdrawal from the country.
Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Othman al-Ghanmi told the Parliamentary Security and Defence Committee that “no firm decision has been reached” on the matter. Ghanmi voiced a preference for US forces withdrawing from Syria to briefly settle in Ain Assad Airbase, one of its 12 bases in the country, before returning to the United States.
Iraqi politician Saleh al-Mutlaq said calls for the withdrawal of US troops were ill-timed because the country is still on high security alert. He told Al-Ghad television that when Baghdad invited the United States back, “our parliament held no reservations or objections.”
In an unannounced visit to Baghdad in February, acting US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan sought assurances over the presence of US troops in Iraq. He reiterated that the United States’ presence was requested by Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s administration said it has given consent to US military presence but not beyond the confines of offering “training and advice.” Abdul-Mahdi reiterated the need for maintain partnerships with not only America but Iran, too. Abdul-Mahdi, however, has not voiced support for the militiamen-led efforts.
The discourse of the militia leaders runs parallel to the deterioration of US-Iranian relations. Although relations between Baghdad and Washington are far from amicable, for Iraq to follow in Iran’s footsteps would cripple more than enhance its sovereign standing.
The strengthened position of the Iran-backed militia leaders, thanks to their political arm in the Fatah Alliance in parliament after May’s elections, has been used to lobby the government and seek to usher out US influence.
Coupled with their political onslaught, militia leaders have revved up threats of attacks against US bases. PMF commander Mahmoud Mourdhy stationed in Anbar released a statement threatening force in retaliation to the buildup of US forces along the Iraqi-Syria border. Mourdhy denounced the United States’ expanding presence in areas vulnerable to Islamic State (ISIS) infiltration as an “occupation.”
The PMF, whether by way of its representatives in parliament or on the battlefront, has made it abundantly clear that it will resort to force should the United States ignore “the wishes of the Iraqi people.”
While drastic changes to US-Iraqi relations are desired by largely pro-Iran actors, they are unlikely to happen any time soon. Despite the defeat of ISIS, the country faces abundant challenges, particularly in stamping out remnants of the terrorist network.
Groups from across Iraq’s political spectrum view the United States’ actions and base expansion across newly liberated territory as a betrayal of promises of a draw-down in Iraq. Some fear remarks from US President Donald Trump that America’s presence in Iraq was needed to “observe Iran.”
Pro-Iran politicians are trying to sideline the United States so they could walk the path of conquest alone in Iraq. Mimicking Iran’s position will only get Iraq so far. Altering its approach in pursuit of greater engagement with both sides allows Iraq to reinforce its voice, drowned out by years of proxy conflict between two countries that place the interests of others above that of Iraq.
The draft legislation represents a bold move but signifies little more than a dress rehearsal of Iran’s intentions in Iraq. If militia leaders scare the United States into withdrawing its forces, it would give rise to a security vacuum like the one that facilitated Iran’s ascent in post-2003 Iraq.