What will US combat forces withdrawal mean for Iraq?

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The White House meeting between President Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was primarily framed around the future of U.S. military forces in Iraq, but in addition to the destabilizing threats of ISIS and Iran-aligned militias, Iraq is also struggling with a deep economic crisis and need for significant political reforms. Ranj Alaaldin details Kadhimi’s efforts to address Iraq’s interconnected crises and how the U.S. is still critical to Iraq’s future.

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Thanks to audio producer Gaston Reboredo, Chris McKenna, Fred Dews, and Marie Wilken for their support.


TRANSCRIPT

PITA: This week, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi of Iraq visited the White House for an official announcement and additional talks on the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. To discuss this shift in the U.S. military mission, what it means for Iraq, and the future of U.S.-Iraq relations is Ranj Alaaldin, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, and a nonresident fellow with the Center for Middle East Policy here at Brookings. Ranj, thanks for talking to us today.

ALAALDIN: Thanks very much, great to be with you.

PITA: This meeting between Prime Minister Kadhimi and President Biden was billed as announcing the quote-unquote end of the U.S. combat mission, but a lot of the details are still up in the air. What do we know so far about what’s actually been decided and what’s still an open question?

ALAALDIN: Thanks very much, Adrianna. I think you hit the nail on the head there. There’s still a number of details that have to become clearer and I do believe over time they will. Of course, the U.S. has been in a non-combat capacity in Iraq for some time now, if not a number of years. A similar announcement was also made under the Trump administration, and the key announcement during Prime Minister Kadhimi’s visit to the White House was that the U.S. will fully, and I emphasize the word “fully” here, transition to a training, advising, assisting, and intelligence-sharing role, with combat forces out of the country by the end of the year.

Ultimately, I think this is, by design, this actual statement, and it stems in large part because of the political pressure Prime Minister Kadhimi is under in Iraq on the on the domestic front. U.S.-Iraq relations became increasingly eroded, reached their lowest ebb since the 1990s, I would argue, under the previous administration in the U.S. At one point, former President Trump even threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq in response to repeated attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq by Iraqi proxy groups that answer to Iran. And so with this current administration, the Iraqis are hoping for a more delicate, more moderate approach to the country, and understanding that the security climate in Iraq is tied heavily to the domestic political dynamics in Iraq. And within that equation, the Iraqis would argue, or the Iraqi government would argue, is the status, the presence of U.S. forces.

Now all this becomes rather complicated because Iraq has a very heavy dependency on the U.S. for the campaign to defeat ISIS. That’s, I guess, in a way, the essence of the relationship itself. U.S.-Iraq relations are particularly important because of the continued threat that ISIS presents. Iraq is of course the arena where ISIS established and declared its so-called caliphate in 2014. It has technically been defeated. It no longer controls territory like it did before and hasn’t done since around 2017, but the group has proven to be rather resilient. It’s ramped up its attacks in recent months and recent weeks, including a very deadly attack in the capital Baghdad last week.

I would say, away from the glare of the international media, it’s expanding its reign of terror in other parts of the country, in the north, in the Arab Sunni heartlands, especially where it’s expanding the scope and scale of attacks. That includes things like assassinations, kidnappings, coercing or extorting local communities. And really establishing the infrastructure that would or could potentially at some point, give it an opening, an opportunity to control territory like it did. So that’s why the U.S. is so important to Iraq’s efforts to prevent that from happening.

Now, what comes into the picture is this scenario which came into play under the Trump administration, where the assassination of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of a major Iran-aligned proxy group, Kata’ib Hezbollah, set into motion the, let’s say, intensified demand for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the country. Although there was a nonbinding vote in the Iraqi parliament, passed predominantly, if not entirely, by groups that are either very loyal to Iran or that because of their constituencies and support bases had no choice but to support that vote, that set into motion the political momentum domestically.

And with Prime Minister Kadhimi, you effectively have a prime minister who in many regards is a transitional prime minister. He came into office because the previous government in Iraq, the previous prime minister, was effectively forced out by a very ferocious protest movement which has demanded greater rights, human rights, demanded accountability in the country, reforms, an end to corruption, and a better standard of living overall. Now that was met with an onslaught by Iran-aligned militias who, to this day, haven’t really answered for the crimes that were committed during that that period, where you had around 600-plus Iraqi civilians killed, thousands were wounded.

And the legacy of that continues today where you’ve got near-daily human rights atrocities being committed by Iran-aligned militias, kidnappings, and so forth, which also, at the same time itself, is very political. Because what it does is, it undermines Prime Minister Kadhimi, it discredits him and ultimately creates the kind of environment that is very conducive to an ISIS resurgence because it’s creating grievances, polarization that is very helpful to the organization, but at the same time, is also very conducive to the objectives and interests of Iran-aligned militias.

Ultimately the trip to Washington is, like I say, was designed to try and get, let’s say, some breathing space from the Americans; an effort to ensure that the U.S. doesn’t really retaliate to continued rocket attacks, drone attacks by Iran-aligned militias on U.S. targets in the country in a manner which perhaps would be similar to the confrontational stance that the Trump administration took. So, something proportional from the U.S. side, a response that doesn’t plunge the country into yet another conflict, and which at the same time, can help de-escalate tensions in the region. Because Prime Minister Kadhimi is certainly carving out a role for himself with the support of other political actors in Iraq, whether it’s the president or whether it’s his allies in Erbil, trying to carve out a role where Iraq can play the role of a bridge-builder of sorts in the region, where Iraq effectively becomes a conduit through which to de-escalate tensions between Iran and its rivals but also Iran and the U.S.

Now that there are a lot of moving pieces here, and it does ultimately come back to this question of whether the announcement from President Biden and Prime Minister Kadhimi in Washington will be enough to convince Iran and its allies to, I would say, either end their rocket attacks on U.S. bases, U.S. targets in Iraq, on U.S.-aligned actors, like-minded Kurdistan regional government, or at least to reduce the number of these attacks, to reduce and limit the scope and scale of these attacks, and that’s something I think will become apparent over the coming days and weeks, most certainly.

PITA: Thanks, Ranj. As you’ve alluded to here, between the question of the resurgence of ISIS, ongoing tensions with Iran and their presence, while there is a lot of strong opinion for the U.S. withdrawal, that’s not universal in Iraq. Kadhimi is also dealing with a lot of his own political dynamics, being not standardly a politician. So I’m wondering if you can give us sort of a little background about him and what he’s dealing with in the country, trying to manage all these difference of opinions, and violence and…

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