Will Iraq finally expel all remaining U.S. troops?

A soldier takes part in a military parade held at the police academy in Baghdad. An Iraqi flag is seen in the background
U.S. troops remain in Iraq to help fight the extremist "Islamic State" group – even though Iraq maintains the extremists were defeated in 2017 (image: Murtadha Al-Sudani / Pool/AA/picture alliance

Following the assassination of an Iraqi militia leader in Baghdad by the USA, the Iraqi government has said it will kick U.S. troops out. Do tensions surrounding the war in Gaza make it more likely this time?

By Cathrin Schaer & Emad Hassan

The Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza offers Iraq "a historic opportunity", Hassan Nasrallah, the influential leader of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, said in his speech on 4 January.

Hezbollah is a political and military organisation based in Lebanon and is opposed to Israel. As such, it is part of a network of groups in the region, which Iran supports to one degree or another, that feel the same way about Israel. That includes the Houthis in Yemen and various paramilitary groups in Iraq.

As Nasrallah said in his speech, all of these groups have been "distracting the enemy" during the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Hezbollah, whose military wing the European Union classifies as a terrorist organisation, has been exchanging rocket fire with Israeli troops on Lebanon's disputed southern border with Israel. The Houthis are attacking commercial vessels off their own coast, and Iraqi groups have launched rockets and drones against U.S. bases in their country.

Over 100 attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq

Iraqi militias operating under the name "Islamic Resistance in Iraq" are thought to have been behind many of the over 100 attacks targeting U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, launched since the Gaza conflict began.

A propaganda billboard for the pro-Iran Hezbollah Brigades militia hanging over Palestine Street in the centre of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, depicting three of their masked fighters walking along a road between palm trees
The "Islamic Resistance in Iraq" is an umbrella group for several of Iraq's Iran-sponsored militia groups (image: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Although numbers have dropped hugely from a peak of around 130,000 during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, there are still around 2,500 American soldiers stationed in Iraq. They are mostly there as part of the international coalition fighting the extremist "Islamic State" (IS) group.

The U.S. has responded in different ways to these attacks In Iraq, but mostly, they've been restrained, observers say. However, a U.S. missile strike in Baghdad on 4 January killed Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, a senior member of one of the Iran-backed militias, Harakat al-Nujaba.

Members of the Iraqi government, including Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, described the U.S. attack as a blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a "dangerous escalation".

By Friday, the Iraqi government was discussing plans to kick U.S. troops out of Iraq permanently. Experts say this wouldn't even necessarily be that difficult and likely only requires a letter because the U.S. troops are in Iraq at the government's invitation. 

"While the security setup is different today, and foreign troops are in Iraq in an advisory capacity at the invitation of the Iraqi government since 2014, it is not a permanent setup," explained Hamzeh Hadad, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

Will it really happen?

Long-time observers of Iraq are aware that these kinds of threats are made regularly. In fact, they've been made at least once a year since 2011, the year that the U.S. largely withdrew from Iraq. The only lapse in such threats came after 2014, when Islamic State took over large swathes of Iraq and Syria, and the U.S. was invited back to help repel extremist fighters.

In 2020, the U.S. assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani provided fresh impetus to call for a U.S. withdrawal.

Since then, calls for the U.S. military to leave Iraq have come more regularly again. The conflict in Gaza, in which the U.S. is seen as unambiguously supportive of Israel, has seen another round of these demands. Last week's assassination of al-Jawari, an escalation of sorts, only brings them into sharper focus. 

Iraqis do not just debate the U.S. presence because of 2003's contentious invasion, but also because the U.S. is one of two countries with outsize influence in Iraq. The other is neighbouring Iran. The two nations are foes and are seen as balancing the other out in Iraq, preventing either from having too much influence.

"In Iraq, there are people that support America, and there are people that support Iran," said Abu Firas al-Hamdani, a former TV journalist and politician in Iraq, now residing in the Netherlands. "Just as some are demanding the U.S.' exit, others are calling for Iran to leave. Then there are other Iraqis whose goal is Iraqi independence from both [nations]."

Anti-U.S. demonstration in Iraq marking the anniversary of the assassination by the U.S. of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani
Iraqis protesting Qassem Soleimani's death; he was well known as an important coordinator of Iran-backed military groups in Iraq (image: Thaier Al-Sudani/REUTERS)

The U.S. role in Iraq today

"If we're really honest, the debate [about U.S. presence] has moved on from the anti-IS mission," said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Century Foundation and author of a new book about Shia politics and religion, "God's Man in Iraq".

"Iraq doesn't need as much support as it needed in the past. Iraqis probably have enough capabilities to stop [the IS group] from relaunching a large insurgency."

But there are other benefits, Jiyad noted, like military training, logistics, reconnaissance, assisting with special forces' operations and aerial support, intelligence sharing and access to high-end U.S. military equipment. 

At the same time, the U.S. sees Iraq as a place from which to counter Iranian influence, Jiyad said, and its Iraqi bases serve America's own strategic purposes. The U.S. bases can also be considered problematic because the Iraqi government has as little control over them as it does over the Iran-backed militant groups.

"The Iraqi government can't stop these [Iran-backed] militias from attacking U.S. interests. And it can't stop the U.S. from retaliating either," explained Jiyad. "That is, launching air strikes and conducting assassinations without Iraqi permission. That's a big problem, and it puts the Iraqi government in a very difficult position."

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani stands next to the Iraqi flag at an event in Baghdad
Experts say that although Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is under pressure, he is unlikely to want U.S. troops to leave altogether (image: Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency/Pool via REUTERS)

Maintaining stability?

The U.S. has made it clear they want to remain in Iraq. If they were to depart permanently, or if they were forced out, the Americans have suggested that might change things for the worse, Jiyad explained.

The U.S. government might not see Iraq as an ally any longer, perhaps even as aligned with Iran. This could bring problems, he suggested, including the threat of sanctions, the possible withholding of billions in Iraqi foreign reserves currently in the U.S. and no more military cooperation.

At the same time, though, pro-Iranian politicians and militants in Iraq – and last week, Hezbollah's Nasrallah, too – are all increasing their calls to expel the Americans due to their support of Israel in the Gaza conflict.

But all the experts consulted said that was unlikely to happen. A special committee is being formed to help "end the presence of the international coalition forces in Iraq permanently". But special committees are an oft-used delaying tactic in Iraqi politics.

Despite what they're saying publicly, the Iraqi government might likely prefer to maintain the status quo, al-Hamdani said.

"I think the Iraqi government is in a very difficult position right now and probably wants to negotiate a way out of this," Jiyad concluded. "But if there's an escalation, the Prime Minister's hand might be forced. That is possible. It just depends on the severity of events on the ground."

Cathrin Schaer & Emad Hassan

© Deutsche Welle 2024