Iraq seeks US presence but rejects occupation

The US President Donald Trump has been struggling to terminate America’s ‘endless wars’, but without much visible success so far. However, the terminator in the White House may be succeeding in spite of himself in one major Middle Eastern theatre  Iraq where, ironically, Trump intends to keep US troops deployed for the foreseeable future. To demonstrate his grit symbolically, Trump chose Iraq for his first ever visit to a combat zone as the US commander-in-chief when he had a 3-hour stopover at Al Asad air base on the Syrian-Iraqi border last December.

Candidate Trump regretted that the Obama administration withdrew troops from Iraq and failed to seize that country’s fabulous oil fields as war booty. And in a CBS interview a week ago, Trump expansively added a further dimension to the tale, saying, “We (US) spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem.”

Asked if that meant he wanted to be able to strike Iran, Trump said, “No, because I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch. We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq. It’s perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up.” Again, last Tuesday, during his State of the Union address last Tuesday before the US Congress, Trump repeated his case for keeping “an eye on Iran.”

However, Trump’s bravado has triggered a blowback. The Iraqi leadership takes serious objection to any US attempt to use Iraq as a theatre to hit at Iran. The New York Times was spot on by noting that Trump might have “achieved a previously unattainable goal,” which was “unity in the Iraqi political establishment” in “a collective rejection of his proposal.”

The Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi underscored that Baghdad has not allowed the US to have any military bases in Iraq and that he will not accept his country being used as a base against any of its neighbours. President Barham Salih also said that the Iraqi Constitution prohibits activities directed another country from Iraqi soil and expressed his opposition to Trump’s intention.

In a rare political comment, the most revered and influential Shiite cleric in Iraq (if not among the Shiites the world over), Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has rejected Trump’s statements on US troops, insisting that Iraq wants “good and balanced relations” with its neighbours and that it “rejects being a launching pad for harming any other country.”

Curiously, Trump has stirred up the hornet’s nest just when talks are beginning to negotiate a formal agreement giving underpinning to the US deployment to Iraq. To be sure, the pro-Iran political and religious groups have kickstarted a campaign to oust the US troops from Iraqi soil. Of course, Baghdad also realises that the US military presence and continued support is imperative to consolidate the security gains made since 2014. On the other hand, the leadership in Baghdad is also obliged to demonstrate that it is standing up for Iraq’s sovereignty.

Clearly, the US military deployment to Iraq has several dimensions. Needless to say, Trump blurted out the truth when he said the US military and intelligence view Iraq as a listening post on Iran. Unlike in Syria where the US military presence lacks legitimacy under international law and is facing criticism from Russia, Turkey and Iran, when it comes to Iraq, American forces were invited by the established government in Baghdad and almost all Arab countries support the deployment.

Second, even in the unlikely event of Baghdad evicting US troops from the country, the pro-US Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) could always seek to host at least a residual force of coalition troops in the Region. The KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani recently affirmed Erbil’s stance that US troops should remain in Iraq while ISIS still poses a threat, arguing that this “is in the best interest of Iraq.”

The bottom line is that a complete withdrawal of US troops  similar to the 2011 withdrawal, when Washington failed to retain even a residual troop presence  is highly improbable in the near term so long as the spectre of an ISIS resurgence continues to haunt the authorities in Baghdad. (Read a report by WaPo’s Adam Taylor, Do U. S. Troops Have A Future In Iraq?)

Third, Iraq has become in the recent period a turf for competing influences  Iran’s looming presence, nascent Saudi influence (encouraged by the US and Israel) and the overarching Iraqi nationalism. The protracted negotiations for the formation of a coalition government in Baghdad following last year’s parliamentary election testify to a certain depletion of Iran’s predominance in Iraqi politics  although Tehran-backed militia forces constitute the steel frame of Iraqi security and trade and economic relations with Iran are vital for the survival of the Iraqi economy.

Read a fascinating essay in the Middle East Eye entitled Iraq’s new leaders can’t be reduced to a US vs Iran binary. Fourth, unlike in Syria where Iran has shared interests with Russia and Turkey for the eviction of the US troops, Tehran is more or less on its own in countering the US presence in Iraq. Russia’s influence in Baghdad is a pale shadow of what it used to be in the Soviet era.

As for Turkey, it has specific interests in Iraq which can be safeguarded on its own steam (with or without Iranian help.) Besides, it is far from certain whether Russia and Turkey relish the prospect of an Iraq dominated by Iran. Quite obviously, Russia and Turkey have steered clear of Iran’s ‘resistance’ politics. If the Israeli version is to be believed, Moscow even acquiesces with the relentless Israeli attacks on Iranian assets in Syria. 

Finally, the big question remains: Isn’t it a good thing that the US and Iran ‘co-habitate’ the Iraqi turf? After all, they have a common interest in Iraq’s stability. Big Oil has a big presence in Iraq (and this could even be Trump’s real motivation.) ExxonMobil is doing roaring business in the great oil fields of southern Iraq. On the other hand, the Iraqi economy and society is tied by umbilical cords to Iran. And Washington is not unaware that it is unrealistic and might even be destabilising to try to rupture the ‘win-win’ Iran-Iraq economic ties.

Above all, Iraq provides a unique window of opportunity for Washington and Tehran to assess each other’s intentions from close quarters  provided, of course, they keep an open mind, polemic and grandstanding notwithstanding.

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