Washington’s relationship with Baghdad suffers fallout from US-Iran showdown

US experts fear adverse effects on anti-ISIS campaign from an American withdrawal from Iraq.
Sunday 12/01/2020
Turning point. Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (C-down) and Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi (C-up) attend a parliamentary session regarding the ouster of US troops in Baghdad, January 5. (AFP)
Turning point. Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi (C-down) and Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi (C-up) attend a parliamentary session regarding the ouster of US troops in Baghdad, January 5. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - As Iraq acts as a potential stage for the crisis between Tehran and Washington to play out, the relationship between Washington and Baghdad is nosediving.

The Iraqi parliament voted to “end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil and prevent the use of Iraqi airspace, soil and water for any reason” and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi made it clear that he intends to follow through on the non-binding legislation.

If he does, the effect on the United States and its efforts in the Middle East would be huge. More than 5,200 US troops are deployed there to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State (ISIS) and counterbalance Iranian influence in the country. The United States also trains the Iraqi military.

The parliamentary vote came after heightened tensions between Iran and the United States as well as domestic protests that began in Iraq in October. The escalation began when the Iran-backed militant group Kata’ib Hezbollah killed an American contractor and was exacerbated by the United States’ killing January 3 of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani. Iran retaliated by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases housing US troops.

In a statement January 10, Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned both Tehran and Washington for conducting attacks on Iraqi soil. “The latest dangerous aggressive acts, which are repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty, are a part of the deteriorating situation,” he said.

Iraq has sent a letter to the UN Security Council complaining about Iranian actions, Al Arabiya reported, citing a document it obtained.

In the letter, written by Iraq’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Mohammad al-Uloom, Iraq said it considered the bombing of Iraqi lands under the pretext of Iran’s defence “totally unacceptable and violates the principles of good neighbourliness.”

In a phone call January 9 with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Abdul-Mahdi asked that a delegation from the United States be sent to Iraq to determine the process of withdrawing US troops.

The decision was taken despite assurances by the Trump administration that it was moving towards de-escalation with Iran. The Iraqi prime minister has been clear that he believes de-escalation will only be achieved through a withdrawal of US troops.

Analysts said the pullout of US troops could have a serious effect on Iraq and lead to wider Iranian influence in the country.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the withdrawal of US troops “would expose a weak Iraq to its powerful Iranian neighbour’s increasing weight as the Iraqi scene would be handed over to Iran on a silver platter after the American counterweight vanishes.”

Bilal Saab and Michael Mulroy, in an article published by Foreign Policy, said that Iran may gain influence in a weakened Iraq. “Iraqi politicians will not be able to prevent Iran from dominating Baghdad and subjugating Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish populations,” they wrote. “It is likely that at least some Iraqi legislators were strong-armed into voting to push the US soldiers out of the country by pro-Iran members of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, which were under Soleimani’s control.”

Other analysts said the situation could damage counterterrorism efforts in the region, especially the push against ISIS. The US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS said it was halting its campaigns in Iraq and Syria to focus on protecting itself from possible retaliation by Iraq. Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: “The fight against ISIS has been significantly degraded by the tensions between the US and Iran.”

The damage may be furthered with a pullout of troops from Iraq because it would leave the Iraqi military in the hands of Iran, analysts said.

“If the United States were to withdraw its troops from Iraq, the governmental counterterrorism force would likely be merged with Iran-backed militias. It would both undermine their reputation and constitute a blow to the Iraqi state, which the US has sought to strengthen,” said Peter Neumann, the founding director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. The United States has played a key role in training the Iraqi counterterrorism force.

Other analysts said combating both Iran and ISIS in the region at the same time would inhibit the effectiveness of the campaigns because troops would have their focus split among multiple adversaries on multiple fronts.

“The entire US mission in the Middle East is being repositioned from a specific and focused goal of defeating ISIS to an amorphous and open-ended campaign to counter Iran,” said Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Centre, a think-tank in New York. The threat of facing multiple enemies is that “US forces will be overstretched while also becoming more attractive targets for a broad array of adversaries,” said Clarke.

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