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Losing Iraq will upset US regional sway

Jan 07,2020 - Last updated at Jan 07,2020

Iraq is in turmoil following last Friday’s US strike that killed a top Iranian general and an Iraqi militia leader and others near Baghdad International Airport. On Sunday and in a chaotic session of parliament, lawmakers passed a resolution that commits the caretaker government of Adel Abdul Mahdi to end the presence of all foreign troops in Iraq and terminate a security agreement with the US.

“The government commits to revoke its request for assistance from the international coalition fighting [Daesh] due to the end of military operations in Iraq and the achievement of victory,” the resolution read.

Abdul Mahdi had said that the US drone attack that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani and deputy head of the Popular Mobilisation Forces Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis violated the security agreement that saw US forces stationed in Iraq to help fight Daesh. President Donald Trump had admitted that he had given the order to kill Soleimani and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the operation was taken to thwart what he described as “an imminent threat”.

As Washington and Tehran traded threats and warnings in the wake of the strike, Iraqis found themselves at the centre stage of what had become a major regional crisis. President Trump responded to the Iraqi parliament resolution by threatening “sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame”. He told reporters that “Washington would have to be reimbursed for the cost of the air base there”.

His threats will inflame the situation even further. The US now finds itself in an awkward position and is already being labelled as an occupier not only by pro-Iran factions, but also by a growing number of Iraqis who are also against Iranian presence. For years the US and Iran competed for influence over Iraq’s affairs but avoided direct confrontation there. Now it appears that the killing of Soleimani may have undercut Washington’s ties with Iraq’s political establishment, including politicians and activists who support US presence to counter Iran’s growing influence.

Despite all the threats that are coming from Tehran, Iran is likely to choose strategic patience in relation to its response to Soleimani’s killing, especially where Iraq is concerned. It would be foolish and counterproductive to use Iraq as a stage to attack US military targets. Instead, Tehran will likely be satisfied by the Iraqi parliament’s resolution and what may follow in the form of diplomatic engagement between Baghdad and Washington to end US military presence in Iraq.

That also means that it will put pressure on its Iraqi proxies to exercise restraint, for now, in order to maintain the current political momentum shown by the Baghdad government and parliament.

The termination of the security agreement means that US forces will have to leave Iraq within a year. This will deal a heavy blow to America’s geopolitical goals and objectives in the region on a number of fronts. It would mean losing its military assets in Iraq, which are vital to supporting its posts in eastern Syria as well as in confronting Iranian regional ambitions. Furthermore, withdrawing from Iraq will be seen as a huge boon for Iran, which can then tighten its grip on Iraq. This is a major concern for Iraq’s Arab neighbours who oppose Iran’s provocative regional meddling.

Ironically, Israel, which celebrated Soleimani’s demise, may now be concerned about the long-term fallout from the American strike.

On the other hand, the Iraqis remain divided over US and Iranian intervention in their country. While the US strike had put a damper on the popular uprising in Iraq, seen as a gift to pro-Iran militias and the corrupt political class, protests may resume later since the country continues to face huge political and economic challenges. Certainly, many Iraqis will not be happy to see Iran filling the void left by the US withdrawal if that happens.

But a year, if that is what it would take for the US to pull out, is a long time in politics and since the US-Iraqi crisis is still young there are many factors that could change the current trajectory. One has to do with the way Iranian leaders choose to respond to Soleimani’s killing. While neither side wants an open war, an incident in the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon or even beyond may be the spark that lights up a major confrontation. Certainly Trump remains defiant and unpredictable even as he faces a motion by the House of Representative to limit his ability to wage war.

The other factor is related to domestic security. Daesh has not been wiped out completely and there are sleeper cells in Iraq that could regroup as the US and other NATO forces prepare to pull out. Iraq stands to lose if the US terminates security and intelligence cooperation with Baghdad.

For now salvaging the Iraqi situation is emerging as an immediate priority for the US. Trump’s initial reaction will not derail the push to end US military presence there. Iraq’s response to the US strike has changed the rules of the game, and for now, Washington is scurrying to find the right answer.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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