US to announce troop drawdown from Iraq, but little is expected to change

Pro-Iranian factions have been clamouring for a US departure. PHOTO: AFP

BAGHDAD (NYTIMES) - Iraq's prime minister is heading to Washington this weekend to demand that President Joe Biden withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq, announcing to Iraqi media that the visit would "put an end to the presence of combat forces."

US officials say the United States is likely to oblige the request from Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, setting a deadline to be announced Monday (July 26) for the withdrawal of US combat forces by the end of the year.

Pentagon and other administration officials say they will achieve this by removing a small but unspecified number of the 2,500 US forces currently stationed in Iraq and by reclassifying on paper the roles of other forces. Mr al-Kadhimi will have a political trophy to take home to satisfy anti-American factions in Iraq, and the US military presence will remain.

"There will be no US military forces in a combat role by the end of the year," said a senior US official familiar with ongoing discussions. "We anticipate some force adjustments in line with that commitment."

What appears to be a set piece of diplomatic theatre is the latest effort by Mr al-Kadhimi to tread between the needs and demands of Iraq's two closest allies, the United States and Iran. Pro-Iranian factions have been clamouring for a US departure, while Iraqi officials acknowledge they still need the help of US forces.

The Biden administration in turn is grappling with how to operate in a country that since the US invasion 18 years ago has fallen increasingly under the grip of Iranian-backed militias and a corrupt political system that has brought Iraq's government institutions to the brink of collapse.

Mr al-Kadhimi's government, along with many senior Iraqi military officials, quietly favour the roughly 2,500 US troops in Iraq staying in their current form. But the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, Iran's top security and intelligence commander, along with a senior Iraqi security official and eight others in a US drone strike in 2020, has made the US' current presence politically impossible, and politically undesirable in the United States.

After the US drone strike, Iraq's Parliament demanded the government expel US forces - a motion that was non-binding but sent a strong message to any politician who wanted to stay in power, including the prime minister.

Grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, a budget crisis and powerful Iranian-backed militias largely beyond his control, Mr al-Kadhimi has accomplished little since taking office two years ago. His advisers argue that if only he were given more time, he could rein in the militias, cut corruption and arrest more killers of hundreds of unarmed protesters and activists.

Most of Iraq's paramilitary units were formed in 2014 in response to a call by the country's most revered Shiite cleric for Iraqis to mobilise against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group. Those militias were later absorbed into Iraq's official security forces, but the most powerful are tied to Iran and only nominally under control of the Iraqi state.

The United States has repeatedly blamed Iranian-backed militias for the persistent attacks on US targets in Iraq. The US and many Iraqi officials believe the militias are also responsible for most of the assassinations of activists and for a wide range of illegal moneymaking schemes.

After President Barack Obama withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011, some remained, under the authority of the US Embassy in Baghdad. Three years later, with ISIS fighters capturing territory across much of Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi government requested US military support to help fight the terrorist group.

Since ISIS was driven from its last Iraqi stronghold in 2017, US officials have consistently maintained that since there are currently no combat operations authorised in Iraq, there are no combat troops in the country. But they acknowledge a small number of US Special Operations Forces serving as advisers, and trainers occasionally accompany Iraqi counter-terrorism forces on combat missions against ISIS fighters.

In Washington on Friday, Pentagon officials said they expected the troop levels in Iraq to remain at their current level of about 2,500 and that the role of some US forces would be redefined.

But while giving Mr al-Kadhimi temporary political cover, a reclassification of US forces rather than a drawdown likely will not satisfy the militias and political parties calling for a withdrawal of all troops, Iraqi officials say.

"Changing their name from combat forces to trainers and advisers - we consider it as an attempt at deception," said Mr Mohammad al-Rubai'e, political spokesperson for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the biggest Iranian-backed militias, which maintains 16 seats in the Iraqi Parliament.

Those militias and many Iraqi politicians linked to them contend that the real purpose of US forces in Iraq is to counter Iran, not threats from ISIS. Iran this year has carried out increasingly sophisticated attacks, including drone strikes, on US targets in Iraq, and the United States has launched calibrated retaliatory strikes.

"The dialogue with the United States is, how can we think about maintaining a presence that is useful without incurring a high political cost?" Mr Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a US think tank, said during a visit to Iraq this week. "The interests of the two sides don't really align because the United States isn't going to see it in its interests to continue to be attacked by these militias that the government of Iraq can't curtail."

Iran denies responsibility for the attacks, according to Iraqi officials, but its leaders have also made clear that they intend to retaliate against the United States for killing Gen Soleimani and Mr Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi deputy commander overseeing militias.

The United States over the past year has increasingly focused on force protection, withdrawing from vulnerable bases in Iraq to consolidate its presence on three Iraqi military installations.

While the ISIS group is no longer able to capture territory, the group continues to launch destabilising attacks such as bombings in markets that point out weaknesses in Iraqi security forces.

"Within Iraq, ISIS is defeated as a significant military threat, but its radical ideology lives on," said Mr Mark Kimmitt, a retired US Army brigadier general and former State Department official who now consults for US firms doing business in Iraq. "Deradicalisation, however, is not part of the US mission."

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