The receding tide of America’s guardianship over Iraq

As long as ISIS gasps for air, the US presence in Iraq can be justified on grounds of securing stability by cleansing northern Iraq of ISIS affiliates and conspirators.
Sunday 15/03/2020
US Army soldiers man a defensive position at Forward Operating Base Union III in Baghdad, last December. (Reuters)
Receding influence. US Army soldiers man a defensive position at Forward Operating Base Union III in Baghdad, last December. (Reuters)

A US-led advisory mission accompanying counterterrorism forces in northern Iraq was upended after an assault by Islamic State militants killed two US Marines.

The re-emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) appears to fulfil US President Donald Trump’s ominous description of Iraq as “Harvard for terrorism” but as political gears shift, signs of the United States’ drawdown are apparent to Iraq watchers and the international community. Iraq’s ability to safeguard its domestic affairs remains questionable because of corruption across all branches of its security apparatus.

As the tide of the United States’ influence recedes, the March 8 attack revives scrutiny of Washington’s foreign policy priorities as Iraqi support on the streets and in parliament dissipates. Retired US generals concede that Trump is not unaware of the fallout caused by the United States’ 2011 Iraq pullout, ordered by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump is cautious not to tread along the same path as he downsizes troop presence but works to maintain influence akin to indirect imperial rule in a country the United States has poured billions into.

The rationale heard before is being repeated: Iraq may struggle to defend itself against terrorism without aerial surveillance and support. Both were crucial to the victory that Baghdad announced against ISIS in December 2017. Permanent US installations can fade only if the political process in Iraq is one that favours US interests.

The actors the United States placed in charge of the new Iraq are the same personalities gearing up for their expulsion. Parliamentary factions aligned to (ir)regular forces secured a vote in January agreeing to expel US forces. Departure, viewed from the lens of actors hostile to the United States, is non-negotiable and time-sensitive.

Many of these Iran-aligned groups pressured Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi to finalise a timeline for the US withdrawal. Failing to forge the consensus he needed for parliament to approve his cabinet lineup, Allawi resigned March 1.

In Trump’s mind, a withdrawal on unfriendly terms would cost not the United States but Iraq, which Trump expects will remunerate him in the form of sanctions for damages sustained to the United States’ “extraordinarily expensive airbase,” Al Asad, struck by Iran in January.

US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus warned Iran that it would pay the price of its mischief but Trump’s warnings make clear that whether or not attacks originate inside Iran, Iraq will find itself at ransom.

Four months before the United States killed the point man of Tehran’s foreign policy in Iraq was when the last US fatality had been recorded. Since the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major-General Qassem Soleimani in January, NATO’s Iraq mission and joint Iraqi-US operations were “temporarily thinned out” and, while NATO’s military operations have resumed, Iraqi forces are fanning out across rural terrain in north Iraq on the prowl for ISIS remnants, without US backing.

The killing of the two Marines as part of a counterterrorism operation to recover other US corpses from an ISIS-dug cave reveals that joint operations under the banner of Operation Inherent Resolve continue. However, it is not clear which of Iraq’s security actors enjoy advisory support from the United States and those the United States declines to cooperate with.

The strategic framework that governs their alliance has not been renegotiated and, similarly, the decision to hasten the departure of foreign troops in parliament has not been legally enforced or planned.

As long as ISIS gasps for air, the US presence in Iraq can be justified on grounds of securing stability by cleansing northern Iraq of ISIS affiliates and conspirators. It was reported that Iraqi and US forces eliminated 15 ISIS fighters during the mission. The scourge of terrorism is not the only thing keeping the United States’ 5,200 troops firmly stationed in a country synonymous with abundant oil wealth and rising poverty.

Keeping Iran on its radar presents another rationale but the drivers for departure are more compelling for the global powerhouse that formerly abandoned the conflict in Libya, pulled out of northern Syria and now hopes to excuse itself from Iraq.

Last January’s vote was singled out in local media as a Shia-approved decision that Sunni parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi warned would not be without reverberating consequences. In the absence of Kurdish and Sunni parties during the voting session, Shia factions ought to take responsibility, Halbousi stated. This, he added, could encourage the international community to suspend financial cooperation with Iraq.

While calls for the United States’ exit grow united in Iraq, divisions deeper than those on the surface remain as does uncertainty over whether the United States can secure a legal mandate that warrants its stay in war-devastated Iraq.

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