On Wednesday, September 30, 2020, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein declared that Baghdad is “not happy” with a “dangerous” threat by Washington to pull its troops and diplomats out of Iraq.
“A US withdrawal could lead to further pullouts” by members of the US-led coalition fighting holdout extremists, which would be “dangerous because ISIS group threatens not only Iraq but the whole region,” the minister said. “We hope that the United States will rethink its decision,” which at the moment is only “preliminary,” Hussein added. “Some people in Washington make parallels with Benghazi but it’s a faulty analysis, just as this is a faulty decision,” he said, referring to Libya’s second city, where in 2012, four US personnel, including the ambassador to Libya, were killed when extremist militants among a crowd of protesters stormed the US consulate.
Several political and diplomatic sources have told AFP that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued an ultimatum last week that all US personnel would leave Iraq unless the government puts a stop to a rash of attacks against them. According to officials, this is a step Iraqis fear could turn their country into a battle zone.
The US State Department, asked about plans to withdraw from Iraq, said: “We never comment on the Secretary’s private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders … Iran-backed groups launching rockets at our Embassy are a danger not only to us but to the Government of Iraq.”
The reason behind the US’ declaration is the high number of rocket attacks – around 40 – which have targeted the US embassy or bases housing US troops, between October 2019 and July this year in Iraq.
Also, since Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was received in the White House amid great fanfare in August, the frequency of such attacks has increased significantly. Therefore, in the last two months, another 40 attacks have taken place, targeting not only the embassy and military bases but also the supply convoys of Iraqi contractors for Washington and its allies.
Taking the side of the US, in order to maintain control over the country, the Iraqi minister said that “Attacks on foreign embassies are attacks on the government, which has responsibility for protecting them”.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government is working on presenting an economic reform plan in the coming days, at a time when Iraq faces complex economic crises most notably related to the need to secure $3.6 billion per month in salaries for about 6.5 million employees and retirees, a government source told Al-Monitor. The reform plan is supposed to include amendments to the salary scale, put an end to the discrepancy in salaries of state employees, and organize both the payrolls of retired employees and the Federal Service Law. This plan has garnered both domestic and foreign support and has been even backed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who, on September 13th, said “serious and exceptional steps in combating corruption” must be taken.
Recent attacks have mostly been claimed by little known factions among the array of Shia armed groups equipped and trained by neighboring Iran during the war against the Sunni extremists of ISIS. They justify their actions because of the tense relationship with PM al-Kadhimi, who is seen as more pro-American than some of his predecessors.
However, even if discussions about pulling out troops from Iraq were on the plate in the last years, the US still has hundreds of diplomats in its mission in the high-security Green Zone in Baghdad and around 5,000 troops based in three bases across the country. Earlier in September, the US military said it would reduce its presence in Iraq to 3,000 troops from 5,200. In addition, the Pentagon said on Monday it was committed to supporting Iraq’s long-term “security, stability, and prosperity” and US military operations against Islamic State continued.
Moreover, according to different experts, complete departure by the US from Iraq would further weaken al-Kadhimi’s hand for reform and embolden pro-Iran militias. The US could put pressure on Iraqi officials to rein in pro-Iran militias without closing its embassy – which is the US’s largest diplomatic outpost and was one of the most expensive to build – in Iraq and losing its leverage. Also, if the US closes its embassy, it will be a diplomatic disaster for Iraq, as some other diplomatic missions might also be suspended or relocated from Baghdad.
In a region polarized between allies of Iran and the US, Iraq is the rare exception: a country that has close ties with both. But that has left it open to a perennial risk of becoming a battleground in a proxy war. That risk was hammered home in January this year, when Washington killed Iran’s most important military commander, Qassem Soleimani, with a drone strike at Baghdad airport. Iran responded with missiles fired at US bases in Iraq. Since then, a new prime minister has taken power in Iraq, supported by the US, while Tehran still maintains close links to powerful Shia armed movements.
Professor Feisal Amin Rasoul al-Istrabadi, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University Bloomington said: “Of course, from an international legal perspective, the US has a point: The host state is obligated to secure all diplomatic missions within its territory. On the other hand, the inherent weakness of the Baghdad government can hardly be a surprise in Washington.”
President Salih, al-Kadhimi, and the Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi issued a joint statement that included the assertion of the government’s support for the efforts to prevent the targeting of diplomatic missions. Top Iraqi officials are united in trying to calm the situation and have assured US officials that closing the embassy does not serve Iraq.
Professor of Politics Brendan O’Leary at the University of Pennsylvania said: “Al-Kadhimi’s position is delicate. He has always said everything should be coordinated according to the constitution. The constitution plainly bans militias, but he does not have the power to dissolve them.”
Thafer al-A’ani, an Iraqi Member of Parliament, said that some elements of the pro-Iran militias have a presence within the Green Zone. He also said the Iraqi government decided to remove all the militias from the Green Zone, but it will be unable to stop attacks.
Farhad Alaaldin, Chairman of The Iraq Advisory Council, argued that Iraq will lose the US’s aid amounting to $5 billion and the US’s backing of Iraq in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This would be a catastrophe for Iraq’s stability and the economy as it already struggles to handle its budget. “I would note, not incidentally, that should the US actually make good on its threat to leave Iraq, it would hand Iran a strategic victory Tehran could not have dreamt of.”