US consolidates troop presence in Iraq, plans for reductions

The Pentagon seems to be planning for a reduction in the number of troops in Iraq, probably reasoning that, over the long term, fewer coalition troops might be needed against ISIS.
Sunday 29/03/2020
A US Army soldier stands guard during the pull-out ceremony from the Qayyara Airbase, March 26. (DPA)
Strategy reassessment. A US Army soldier stands guard during the pull-out ceremony from the Qayyara Airbase, March 26. (DPA)

The US military is moving troops from some bases in western and northern Iraq to other facilities in the country following attacks by a pro-Iran militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah.

Although US military sources said the withdrawal of US troops from one of the bases, the remote Qaim base near the Iraqi-Syrian border, was in the works for some time — US Army Colonel Myles Higgins of the anti-Islamic State coalition told Al-Monitor that the coalition does not need to be in Qaim because Iraqi security forces are preventing the Islamic State (ISIS) from resurging there — it was probably accelerated by threats from such militias.

US Marine Corps General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, has acknowledged that the United States would be leaving three remote bases in Iraq but would maintain troops at other bases. In addition, the United States would deploy a Patriot missile defence system in Iraq to protect against rocket attacks.

The US military said the Katyusha rocket attacks that killed two US soldiers and one British soldier at Camp Taji base on March 11, which were preceded by other attacks, were coordinated by Kata’ib Hezbollah. In response, the United States struck the militia but the Iraqi government accused the United States of killing and wounding Iraqi soldiers and civilians in the process.

The Iraqi military issued a strong statement that accused the US-led coalition of violating the partnership agreement and described the US strikes as a “treacherous attack.” By contrast, the Pentagon said the strikes targeted only Kata’ib Hezbollah members and its weapons depots.

This episode recalled the tense period in January when, after the United States’ targeted killing of Iranian al-Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad International Airport, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling on all foreign forces to leave the country. That resolution was directed mainly at the United States.

Increased tensions between the United States and the Iraqi government are posing a dilemma for the Americans.

Although it is unclear whether Kata’ib Hezbollah was taking direct orders from Tehran, Washington cannot afford to be seen “cutting and running” in the face of militia attacks because it does not want to provide Iran with a victory while it is maintaining its maximum pressure campaign on Tehran.

At the same time, the more the United States retaliates against pro-Iran militia forces, the more the chances that innocent Iraqis — soldiers and civilians alike — could be caught in the crossfire, making the US military presence increasingly untenable.

For that reason, the Pentagon probably thinks that redeploying US forces to bases that are better protected would minimise the chances of more American deaths as well as the need for retaliatory strikes.

The stated purpose of the US military presence in Iraq is the continuing anti-ISIS campaign, not to make Iraq a battlefield against Iran. As long as the US military was seen as helping in the fight against ISIS, its presence in Iraq post-2014 was not very controversial.

If it emphasises that mission as opposed to zeroing in on Iran and the pro-Iran militias, it might be able to maintain its presence for at least the short term. A US Marine was killed in early March in a joint operation targeting ISIS in a mountain cave, indicating that the threat from ISIS remains very real.

Along these lines, a spokesman for the US-led coalition stated — in a diplomatic fashion — that the coalition “will retain key military personnel on some Iraqi bases, to ensure the government of Iraq and our interests are appropriately supported.” The spokesman added that “we remain partnered and collaborate closely with Iraqi security forces” for “operations against Daesh” [an Arabic acronym for ISIS].

However, at the same time, the Pentagon seems to be planning for a reduction in the number of troops in Iraq, probably reasoning that, over the long term, fewer coalition troops might be needed against ISIS and that the fewer numbers would generate less controversy inside Iraq. One US military source, speaking at the Combined Joint Task Force headquarters in Iraq, said: “Looking ahead, we anticipate the coalition supporting the Iraqi security forces from fewer bases with fewer people.”

The coronavirus threat has caused the US military in Iraq to withdraw some troops from Iraq and for the Iraqi government to suspend the training of its military forces by coalition members. Other partner countries in the coalition are withdrawing some troops.

Whether this is a temporary drawdown remains to be seen but the US-led coalition seems to be suggesting that, for military and political reasons, it wants the focus to remain against ISIS, all the while indicating that it will not stand idle if Kata’ib Hezbollah again launches rocket attacks against US and coalition forces.