On July 26, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House. During this meeting, the two leaders announced that the United States would formally end its combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. Yet, not all 2,500 U.S. troops located in Iraq would return home as an undetermined number would remain to continue assisting Iraqi security forces in battling the Islamic State, but in more of a training and advisory capacity.
While Mr. Kadhimi’s government silently supports U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, he is under intense domestic pressure from members of a government that have fallen under the influence of Iranian-backed militias and those with close ties with Iran to rid the country of any U.S. military presence. Those with close ties to Iran believe the true intention behind an American military presence in Iraq is to counter Iran. The recent announcement does not really change the current situation and instead more accurately depicts the reality on the ground: U.S. troops have primarily been serving in training and advisory roles for the last several years as Iraqi security forces fight the Islamic State. It does underscore, however, Mr. Kadhimi’s most prominent challenge: balancing its two most important allies, which have left Iraq in the middle of the of its tug of war.
A Generation Later
On the one side, there is the United States. President Biden’s decision to end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq comes on the heels of the United States’ full withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, marking the end of the post 9-11 era. The U.S., under the George W. Bush administration, invaded Iraq in 2003 under the false presumption that Iraq under Saddam Hussein developed weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. toppled Saddam, removing him from power, and then settled in for years of nation building to restore the decimated Iraqi institutions and set up a power-sharing agreement along the sectarian and ethnic lines that define Iraq.
Then, in 2011, after a largely failed attempt at putting Iraq back together, President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, eight years after the initial U.S. invasion. While some troops remained under the authority of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the advent of the Islamic State in 2014 and its spread across both Iraq and Syria led to the Iraqi government’s request that the U.S. send more troops back to aid in its fight against the growing and increasingly violent terrorist organization. The cold fact is that Iraq relies heavily on U.S. support and the presence of its troops to keep the country from decaying into civil war, putting Iraq right in the middle of the United States’ power struggle with Iran.
Blood is Thicker Than Water
And on the other side, there is Iran. The Islamic Republic, through its proxy militias and close ties to members of the Iraqi government, wields considerable power in Iraq. Iran also shares close ethnic and sectarian ties with some of Iraq’s population, which contributes to its degree of power. Most of these militia groups are Shiite Muslims, which represent a majority in Iraq, and the most powerful groups are stood up by Iran, which is a Shiite-majority country.
Moreover, Iran, through its tentacles that permeate the Iraqi government, is applying pressure on Iraqi officials to force the United States out entirely. In this vein, Iran is carrying out attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq all the while denying any responsibility. These militias, under the command of Iran, are working to push U.S. troops out of Iraq entirely and permanently by pressuring Mr. Kadhimi and the Iraqi government to solidify its own power in the region. This is how Iran is putting Mr. Kadhimi and Iraq square in the middle of its wargames with the United States.
A Delicate Balancing Act
Lately, Iraq’s efforts to balance its two allies, who are engaged in retaliatory airstrikes but are also working toward a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief, has come to a head as Iranian-backed militias have targeted U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the assassination of Major General Qassim Soleimani, along with an Iraqi security official, at the hands of an American airstrike in 2020. The United States has responded with airstrikes aimed at the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. Both efforts are a major political headache for Mr. Kadhimi, who has done his best to check the power of the Iranian-backed militias and halt American retaliatory airstrikes while also keeping close partnerships with both Iran and the United States.
Iraq is caught right in the middle of the tug of war of war between the United States and Iran. Despite the havoc that the United States’ military presence and its often detrimental ties with Iran are wreaking in Iraq, for now, very little is likely to change any time soon. Unable to stop Iran’s attacks on its U.S. partners or prevent U.S. retaliation on the militias backed by Iran, Iraq is now facing the “biggest threat to its stability since the Islamic State.”