Disrespecting Iraqi sovereignty is not a winning strategy for US
US President Donald Trump may have had legitimate grievances against the Iraqi government for not adequately protecting the Green Zone, which enabled pro-Iran Shia militiamen to lay siege to the US Embassy for two days in early January, but his statements since then have shown little respect for Iraqi sovereignty and an ignorance of Iraqi history.
In reaction to the US strike that killed 25 Iraqi Shia militiamen and the drone attack that killed Iranian al-Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling on all foreign troops to withdraw from the country. The aim of the resolution was clearly intended for the United States, which has about 5,000 troops in Iraq.
The caretaker prime minister of Iraq, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, before the vote, which he supported, called the Soleimani killing a “political assassination.”
Trump reacted angrily towards the vote. He said that if the Iraqis ask the Americans to leave and do not do it in a very friendly way, “We will charge them with sanctions like they’ve never seen before.” Such sanctions, he added, would “make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
Continuing with his threats and most likely referring to al-Asad Airbase west of Baghdad, Trump went on to say: “We have a very extraordinarily expensive airbase that’s there. It costs billions of dollars to build… We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.”
The Washington Post reported that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the Iraqi parliamentary vote as “the flailing of an unrepresentative parliament headed by a lame-duck prime minister.”
This is not the first time Trump caused a political uproar in Iraq by his actions and comments. His December 2018 visit to al-Asad base created controversy because he did not visit Iraqi officials, as it is customary, and treated the base as US sovereign territory, much like the British did when they controlled Iraq after World War I.
Trump was not sensitive to this sentiment and did not bother to learn the lesson. Two months later, sounding like the real estate businessman he once was (and still is), he told an American television interviewer: “We spent a fortune on building this incredible base” and “we might as well keep it.”
Adding insult to injury, Trump said one of the reasons he wants to keep this base is to “watch Iran,” which many Iraqis interpreted as dragging the country into a war that they do not want. Shortly after the interview aired, many Iraqi politicians called for the expulsion of US forces from the country, claiming that Trump was acting as a colonial master and that the US-Iran conflict should be kept out of Iraq.
It should be noted that the US military presence in Iraq the second time around, that is post-2014, was far less controversial than the post-2003 period. In the second phase, the Iraqis keenly needed the United States to stave off the offensive by the Islamic State (ISIS), which had reached Baghdad’s gates.
US troops were not seen as occupying Iraqi cities, as was the case in the earlier period, but retraining the Iraqi military so it could retake ISIS-occupied territory. For the most part, US troops in this endeavour were “out of sight and out of mind.” However, Trump’s comments rekindled old wounds and drummed up new fears.
Complicating the controversy was a US Department of Defence letter given to Iraqi officials after the parliamentary vote stating that it would be repositioning US troops in preparation for a possible withdrawal. Senior Pentagon officials later said the letter was only a draft and should not have been sent to Iraqi officials, causing more confusion among Iraqis.
Around this same time, the Washington Post reported that senior US officials had begun to draft sanctions on Iraq in case Trump goes ahead with his threats to impose them. One unidentified official said the plan was to wait “a little while” to see whether Iraqi officials follow through on their threat to push US troops out of the country. A former Obama administration official was quoted in the article as stating: “You don’t typically use force against your allies. We are threatening to use extreme coercive policy tools against countries with whom we are allied.”
The post-2014 US military presence in Iraq was not governed by a Status of Forces Agreement but by an executive agreement between the heads of the US and Iraqi governments. As such, the US troop presence could be ended by the Iraqi prime minister repudiating the agreement. Hence, maligning the Iraqi prime minister, even if he is in a caretaker role, seems to be a strategy that could backfire against the United States.
Trump needs to read a little history and desist from threatening Iraq. His aides should give him reading material about the British colonial era — the mandate and the post-mandate period, when the British not only maintained bases in the country but had political influence in it and how all that came to end with the 1958 revolution led by Iraqi nationalist officers.
If the United States handles matters in a more deft manner, it could retain troops in Iraq to continue their important work of training the Iraqi military and helping Iraqi forces go after ISIS cells. Many Iraqis, even though they hate to admit so publicly, want the United States to stay as a balancer to Iran, which they see as having too much influence in the country.
However, for this to succeed, Trump must stop making threats, respect Iraqi sovereignty and allow US professional diplomats to mend fences with Iraqi authorities. That may be a tall order for Trump but that is the only way to reset very tense US-Iraqi relations.