Iraq seeks timetable for foreign troop pullout

The Iraqi parliament’s demand underscores the balancing act Abadi must conduct between the United States and Iran.
Sunday 04/03/2018
A US Army soldier is seen in rural Anbar, on January 27. (AP)
‘Adjustment’ ahead. A US Army soldier is seen in rural Anbar, on January 27. (AP)

LONDON - Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling for the government to draw up a plan for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.

“The Iraqi parliament expresses its gratitude to all countries that supported Iraq in its fight against Daesh (the Islamic State) and calls for the government to draw up a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops,” it said in a statement.

Washington in October 2014 forged a 74-country coalition to assist Iraqi forces in a fightback against ISIS, which had seized large parts of Iraq and posed a military threat to Baghdad.

The coalition announced in February that it was “adjusting” its force levels in Iraq downward as it shifted from combat operations following ISIS’s expulsion from all Iraqi urban centres.

US Army Brigadier-General Jonathan Braga, the coalition’s director of operations, said “an appropriate amount of capabilities” would be kept in Iraq in addition to the forces needed to train, advise and equip the Iraqis.

Such a presence would be coordinated with the Iraqi government, said the coalition, whose main force is made up of 5,000 US soldiers in Iraq.

US forces occupied Iraq for eight years, between a 2003 invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein and their withdrawal in December 2011. Three years later, ISIS seized one-third of Iraq, sweeping aside Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said coalition force numbers were “very limited” and stressed it was “out of the question to give them a base on our territory.”

“There is no base or airport controlled by foreign forces… No aircraft lands or takes off without our authorisation,” he said at a news conference.

Abadi declared victory over ISIS in December but the militants have reverted to a guerrilla-style insurgency and attacks on selected targets.

The Iraqi parliament’s demand underscores the balancing act Abadi must conduct between the United States and Iran, his two biggest military allies who are themselves adversaries.

There are no Iranian regular forces in Iraq but there are Iran-backed Shia militias allied with Abadi’s government.

In October, Abadi strongly defended the Shia militias, after comments from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that foreign fighters and Iranian militias in Iraq should “go home.” Abadi said they were Iraqi volunteer fighters who had played a major role in the military defeat of ISIS.

The parliament vote, backed by all but a handful of the 177 lawmakers present, was sponsored by lawmakers from the ruling Shia Muslim bloc in parliament.

“The timing of the vote, right before the election, is a message from pro-Iran parties that they do not want American troops in Iraq forever,” political analyst Ahmed Younis told Reuters. “They are achieving two things — pressure on Abadi’s government to expel foreign troops, as well as scoring political points before the election.”

Abadi is seeking a second term in parliamentary elections scheduled for May.

A spokesman for the coalition told Reuters the presence of its troops hinged on Iraqi government approval.

“Our continued presence in Iraq will be conditions-based, proportional to need, in coordination with and by the approval of the Iraqi government,” said US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon.

The coalition said it was switching from focusing on retaking territory to consolidating gains. It has trained 125,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, including 22,000 Kurdish peshmerga fighters who helped retake Iraqi territory from ISIS.

The coalition has drawn criticism for the number of civilian casualties resulting from air strikes. At least 841 civilians had been killed as of January 2018. The coalition said it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

A report by refugee aid groups accused Iraqi authorities of forcing thousands of displaced people to return to their home areas despite the risk of death from booby-traps or acts of vigilantism.

The Danish Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee and the Norwegian Refugee Council said the drive came as Iraqi officials suggested they would like to see people move back to vote in the May 12 elections because it was not possible to vote in displacement camps.

The report said many of the returns “are premature and do not meet international standards of safety, dignity and voluntariness.”

The war with ISIS displaced nearly 6 million people and about 2.6 million people are still uprooted.

The Iraqi government denies forcing internally displaced families to return against their will.

“Though the government policy and main goal is to encourage a quick return of displaced families to their areas of origin, this must be voluntarily and not by forcing them to do so,” government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told the Associated Press.

Abadi said that some forced returns may have taken place but that they were “individual cases” and the result of decisions by specific provincial governors as opposed to federal government policy.