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The U.S. military presence in Iraq has been instrumental in leading a Western coalition in the fight against Islamic State and in training Iraqi forces to fight on their own. Analysts say both of those strategic U.S. goals are now in jeopardy in the fevered aftermath of the killing of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“The killing of Soleimani, however you look at it ... has made it impossible for American troops to remain in our country,” says an Iraqi official in Baghdad. “It is the crossing of the boundaries of the coalition.” At the same time, the official says losing U.S. assistance “is going to be detrimental to the military institutions that we are trying to stand up.”
The United States officially says it’s not going. But even the possibility of an abrupt U.S. withdrawal is seen as an Iranian achievement. “This is a major, major victory for Iran,” says Toby Dodge at the London School of Economics. “If you look at key U.S. allies within the security system, the American troops going home leaves them hugely exposed.”
As for U.S. trainers trying to create a counterbalance to Iran-backed militias? “That’s over now,” he says, “if they ever had a chance.”
With his death, Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani may be about to achieve one goal he strove for in life: Withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq.
Saying the United States had breached Iraqi sovereignty when it assassinated Iran’s most powerful general with a drone strike in Baghdad, the Iraqi parliament voted unanimously Sunday, albeit without minority Sunni or Kurdish lawmakers present, for the removal of the remaining 5,500 U.S. troops in the country.
The American military presence has been instrumental in leading a coalition of Western nations in Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) and in rebuilding and training Iraqi forces to wage that battle on their own.
Analysts say that both of those strategic U.S. goals are now in jeopardy in the fevered aftermath of the killing of General Soleimani. His funeral processions in Iraq and Iran drew millions of devotees, and, in a show of Iranian nationalist unity, drew vows of “severe revenge.”
“The killing of Soleimani, however you look at it, and whatever you think of Qassem Soleimani, has made it impossible for American troops to remain in our country,” says an Iraqi official in Baghdad who asked not to be named.
“It’s a breach of sovereignty, flying these armed drones without authorization or knowledge of the Iraqi government [and] conducting a lethal strike within our country on a foreign official,” he says. “It is seen as American overreach. It is the crossing of the boundaries of the coalition.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper denied late Monday that the U.S. had decided to withdraw its troops, despite the leak of an unsigned letter from the top U.S. commander in Iraq notifying Baghdad of force movements in the “coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement.”
“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” wrote U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William Seely. The Pentagon called the letter a draft and a “mistake.” Days earlier, U.S. troops had already suspended the anti-ISIS fight to harden their positions against the risk of attack from Iran or its loyalist allies.
Even the possibility of an abrupt American withdrawal from Iraq – not on Washington’s terms, but forced by Iraqi leaders – was being seen by some as a “victory” for Iran. The U.S. has invested $1 trillion and some 4,500 American lives to create, as initially envisioned, a pro-American, democratic bastion in the Middle East.
Those aspirations evaporated long ago, after years of U.S. missteps in Iraq were met with violent chaos and insurgency, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. A two-volume, 1,300-page U.S. Army study of the Iraq war published in 2018 found that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor.”
U.S. allies left exposed
Tuesday, the burial of the Iranian commander who did much to orchestrate that outcome was delayed, after more than 50 mourners were killed in a crush in his home city of Kerman, in central Iran.
On Monday, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei openly wept at General Soleimani’s coffin, as he led prayers in Tehran. Eulogies praised the general as a national hero and “martyr” for the axis of resistance he did so much to create against the influence of the U.S. and its regional allies.
Now his killing is triggering a fundamental reassessment of the American military presence in Iraq and beyond that analysts say will undermine the fight against a rejuvenating ISIS and leave Iraq and its security forces increasingly vulnerable to pressure from Iran’s proxies.
“Soleimani’s legacy was that the big plan to attack U.S. bases was to trap the Americans into an overblown military response, and no one realized how overblown it would be,” says Prof. Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the London School of Economics.
“This is a major, major victory for Iran. And it means key [U.S.-Iran] balance players, from the [Iraqi] president on down, will now have to run for hiding, because they can’t reach out to the West and forge a new alliance,” says Professor Dodge, who visits Iraq several times a year.
“If you look at key U.S. allies within the security system, the American troops going home leaves them hugely exposed and without much courage that things are going to get better.”
At a stroke, the anti-Iran sentiment that grew during months of anti-government protests in Baghdad, leading to attacks on Iranian consulates and pro-Iran parties in Shiite cities across the south, has been replaced in the headlines by anti-American feeling.
The anti-U.S. backlash began after a Dec. 29 American missile strike on the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, killing 25. Its members, in turn, attacked the U.S. Embassy, breaching and burning its outer walls.
Effective coalition training
Now political reforms demanded by Iraqi protesters have, at best, been put on the back burner as the shockwaves reverberate from the assassination.
And the ramifications of forcing out U.S. troops would be profound for Iraq, where the initial American withdrawal in 2011 – after the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein and the attempts to rebuild state and military institutions – led to deeply pro-Shiite sectarian politics. Those paved the way in 2014 for the Sunni jihadist onslaught of ISIS.
General Soleimani is credited by many Iraqis for swiftly intervening to save Baghdad from ISIS by providing materiel and advisers and for supporting a popular mobilization force that would turn into the powerful Iran-backed Shiite militias in the country today.
But it has been the systematic American-led effort to rebuild and train the Iraqi security forces, which disintegrated in the face of the ISIS advance, that will be critical for Iraq’s future. U.S. and coalition airpower was also instrumental in driving back ISIS.
“We have seen during the war against ISIS just how effective coalition training is, and how the most successful troops in battle were the ones trained by the coalition,” says the Iraqi official. “To lose that support is not a good thing for Iraq. It is going to be detrimental to the military institutions that we are trying to stand up, which are still nascent, which still need training wheels as they learn to ride their bike.”
Indeed, Iraqi forces are still far from self-sufficient despite years of U.S. funding and training, according to the quarterly U.S. military inspector general’s report to Congress published in October.
Iraqi forces’ ability to “find and fix” a target remains a “major shortfall,” the report found, and noted that “exploitation capability is ‘virtually non-existent’ without Coalition assistance.”
Iraq’s acting prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi – who owed his position to a deal brokered by General Soleimani, and who officially resigned last November in the face of the street protests – told parliament Sunday that “urgent measures” were needed to remove U.S. forces from Iraq.
Sanctions on Iraq?
President Donald Trump reacted angrily to the Iraqi parliament move. He said if Iraq kicked out U.S. troops, it should be made to repay “billions” of dollars spent on Al-Balad airbase – though far less was spent on that base and, according to a 2008 agreement, all U.S. military infrastructure left behind when the U.S. first withdrew in 2011 became Iraqi.
Mr. Trump also vowed to impose sanctions on Iraq heavier than those now imposed on Iran, which are crippling Iran’s economy. That is a sensitive subject for Iraqis, who often blame tough sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other Western nations on Iraq during the last 13 years of Saddam Hussein’s rule for the deaths of half a million Iraqi children.
At the very least, analysts say, Washington is unlikely to renew Iraq’s waiver from U.S. sanctions on Iran when they come up for renewal next month. That result alone could affect everything from the critical supply of Iranian electricity to Iraq, to preventing trade using dollars.
“America’s departure under these circumstances – of Trump’s own making, I think we should stress that unambiguously – is going to be economically painful for Iraq,” says LSE’s Professor Dodge.
U.S. troops will leave, “undoubtedly, and it’s just [a question of] how much damage they do as they go,” he says.
“If you speak to American and NATO trainers, clearly what they were doing in their mind was trying to build up political, organizational, and military autonomy juxtaposed against” the Iran-backed Shiite militias, he says. “That’s over now, if they ever had a chance.”
To read the rest of the Monitor’s coverage of the U.S.-Iran clash, please click here.