To contain the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, Iraq's federal security forces have had to enlist the help of foreign forces, as well as the country's many Iranian-backed militia groups. Amid the recent uptick in U.S.-Iran tensions, this has recently created a dangerous dynamic by leaving Western troops operating in close proximity to Iranian proxies.
On March 19, the official Iraqi Security Media Cell announced via Twitter that Iraq's security forces had taken over the al Qaim military base, which formerly housed U.S.-led coalition forces against the Islamic State. The seizure comes just three days after the U.S. military announced it was repositioning its forces from three of the eight bases currently housing American troops in the country, including al Qaim. The United Kingdom also announced that it, too, was pulling out half of its 400 troops participating in the U.S.-led coalition, and has since paused its coalition training mission for 60 days. Denmark, meanwhile, has announced that it would be completely withdrawing its forces from the coalition.
The Risks of Repositioning
The repositioning of Western and international forces in Iraq is in part a response to the growing threat posed by Iran-backed militia forces. These militias — which have become a formal component of the Iraqi state's security forces — have increased the tempo of attacks on bases housing U.S.-led coalition forces in recent months, particularly over the last week. But while intended to help place Western forces out of harm's way, the repositioning risks making the remaining troops an even easier target by concentrating them at fewer select bases. The withdrawals could also signal to militias that their actions are successfully altering the strategies of U.S. and European forces in Iraq, which could prompt yet more violence by encouraging them to rid more Iraqi bases of Western troops. In the longer term, pulling back from the overall counterterrorism fight in Iraq could create space for the Islamic State to resurge as well, just as the group did in neighboring Syria following the recent drawdown of U.S. troops from the country.
Iraq's Status as Proxy Theater
However, the big question moving forward is whether this repositioning will ease the ongoing tit-for-tat escalation between the United States and Iran, which has made Iraq a hot proxy theater. Iran-backed militias have conducted a series of rocket attacks against both the al Qaim and Kirkuk military bases in recent months, in addition to bases closer to Baghdad. This includes the attack in early January that killed an American and ultimately spurred the U.S. assassinations of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, as well as several prominent Iraqi militia leaders.
With Iraqis increasingly caught in the crossfire, the ongoing violence between U.S. forces and Iran-backed Iraqi militias have also begun to weigh heavily on Washington's relationship with the Iraqi government. Indeed, there are reports that Iraqi federal soldiers have begun attacking U.S. and U.S.-allied forces in the hopes of pushing out foreign troops out of the country and thus ending the ongoing proxy battle.