The United States has announced that it will further reduce the number of troops stationed in the Middle East, causing further dismay among analysts who fear such a move could come at the expense of one of the region’s key states. , Iraq.
Acting US Secretary of Defense Christoph Miller on Tuesday announced President Donald Trump’s decision to reduce the presence of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 each by January 15, 2021.
The impact of a US withdrawal has long sparked unease, as many believe it would accelerate the growth of Iranian influence and a resurgence of the armed group ISIL (ISIS).
Shortly after the announcement, the Baghdads Green Zone, a heavily fortified area that houses foreign embassies, including the United States, became the target of a rocket attack. These attacks have become frequent in 2020, emblematic of the current situation in Iraq.
Incessant presence of the Irans
The alleged perpetrators of the attack are Shiite militias backed by Tehran. In recent years, armed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah have gained strength in Iraq, undermining efforts to bring stability to the country.
Kataib Hezbollah is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a government-sponsored Iraqi umbrella organization comprising around 40 militias formed in 2014 to fight ISIS.
When then-Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi restructured the country’s armed forces in 2018, PMF militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, joined the Iraqi army.
This has allowed Iran to wield even more power in Iraqi affairs from government to government and within the military, allowing Tehran to directly influence the decision-making process of its neighbors and play a central role in the struggle for power in the country.
Tehran’s continued support has made Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimis’ attempts to control the now incorporated militias in vain, as C Anthony Pfaff, senior non-resident member of the Atlantic Council, concludes.
Iranian support for some Shiite militias makes them extremely resistant to government efforts to integrate and control them. Without outside support, they would be much more dependent on government funding and more likely to comply with government demands.
Iran, the main beneficiary
The decision to withdraw U.S. troops is likely to shift power significantly in Iran’s favor, an ironic development in light of Trump’s constant efforts throughout his presidency to weaken Iran through a campaign of maximum pressure.
The road to withdrawal was paved in January when the Iraqi parliament, in which Tehran-affiliated groups ceded significant power, voted in favor of expelling US forces.
Foundations created in Iraq with the help of the international community risk being lost, according to David Pollock, Bernstein Fellow at the Washington Institute, who outlines the pros and cons of a US withdrawal:
If US troops remain in Iraq, they would greatly strengthen the position of the Americas there and help counter Iran’s malignant influence throughout the region. But if they left, Iraq would be in immediate risk of relapsing into the destructive isolation of the Saddam era, with even less ability to resist Iran’s predatory policies.
Decades of violence and turmoil since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein following an invasion of the United States and its allies have left Iraq unable to form a stable government and institutions capable of protecting its citizens. Thousands of Iraqis protested against Tehran’s influence, against the rule of militias, corruption and nepotism. Iranian militias were, according to Pfaff, responsible for the murder, kidnapping and torture of protesters.
The latter notwithstanding, Trump is looking to follow through on his promise and bring troops home ahead of President-elect Joe Bidens’ inauguration on January 20.
The withdrawal, according to Tuesday’s announcement, will reduce the US military presence in Iraq from 3,000 to about 2,500 troops, half of the initially deployed force of 5,000. Miller’s predecessor, Mark Esper, who was recently sacked by Trump, had advocated maintaining a viable troop presence in Iraq.
A US soldier stands at the Taji base complex north of the capital Baghdad [File: Ali al-Saadi/AFP]The fight against ISIL
Iran is not the only actor to benefit from the American plans, the fight against ISIL is also likely to suffer from an American withdrawal. Although the international anti-ISIL coalition announced the defeat of the armed group in March 2019, fighters have since regrouped and continue to have plentiful financial assets while generating millions through smuggling and extortion.
ISIS has been able to use recent developments in Iraq as substantial operational opportunities: widespread public protests since October, the resignation of the government and the political stagnation that followed, the infighting over the American murder of the Popular Mobilization Forces leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, says Husham al-Hashimi, a member of the Center for Global Policy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has played a significant role in these developments, forcing the international coalition to suspend its training of Iraqi soldiers in order to prevent outbreaks among troops in early 2020.
Few have been more successful in taking advantage of the pandemic than the Islamic State, says Colin P Clarke, senior researcher at the Soufan Center.
If training has since resumed, countries like Germany have considerably reduced the number of trainers, to the detriment of missions.
Meanwhile, hundreds of armed fighters have retreated to remote and sparsely populated areas, such as Salah al-Din province, from where they continue to launch devastating attacks.
With a further decrease in the US presence and the ensuing vacuum, an increase in the activities of armed groups is likely, Pollock says, arguing that: The quantity and severity of these attacks would surely increase in the absence of US military pressure and ally.
As such, the combination of decline in Iraqi government authority and the vacuum that a US withdrawal could create could put one of the pivotal Middle Eastern states at risk, with Iran and ISIL potentially becoming the immediate beneficiaries of a renewed descent.
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