Like It or Not in Iraq, U.S. Ties Are Here to Stay

7 MINS READMar 4, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Iraqis gather in a mosque in Najaf on Feb. 20, 2019, to mourn victims who were reportedly abducted and killed by armed men on motorbikes.

Iraqis gather in a mosque in Najaf to mourn victims who were reportedly abducted and killed in a recent attack by armed men on motorbikes.

  • As the United States begins to withdraw troops from Syria, maintaining a presence in Iraq will become increasingly important to countering terrorism and Iranian influence in the region.
  • The economic threat of U.S. sanctions because of Baghdad's ties to Iran will continue to spark debate and fracture Iraq's dominant Shiite political elite.
  • Some Iraqi lawmakers have been pushing to legally expel the United States from their country, though such legislation is unlikely to pass.
  • Despite mounting anti-U.S. sentiment in the country, Iraq's pervasive security concerns will solidify its need to keep ties with Washington.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.

In December, the United States abruptly announced it would begin withdrawing troops from Syria, leaving neighboring Iraq to consider how its own political and security situation might be affected. However, Washington has assured Baghdad that it does not intend to change its deployment in Iraq, where it currently maintains more than 4,000 troops. This is partially because Iraq's security and stability depend on its relationship with the United States, and partially because leaving Iraq would force Baghdad to align more closely with Iran.

Amid increasingly hostile relations between Washington and Tehran, Iraq is attempting to balance necessary U.S. cooperation alongside its close but complicated economic and security relationship with Iran. And while this dynamic has led to Iraq's increasingly nationalist political environment in recent years, the truth is that in the face of mounting security threats, Iraq remains too weak to completely sever ties with either the United States or Iran.

The Big Picture

Iraq’s internal security and stability depends on the support Baghdad can accrue from its external allies, namely the United States and Iran. But in recent years, rising nationalist movements in the country have begun pressuring Baghdad to cut its ties with foreign powers. However, doing so will prove difficult, as its perpetually poor security situation leaves Iraq little choice but to remain dependent on outside help.

Why Washington Remains

Maintaining a presence in Iraq is critical for the United States to pursue its own regional goals, including countering Iran's influence and presence in the country, as well as cooperating with its regional allies on counterterror measures. This is why, even after former President Barack Obama's major drawdown of troops in 2011, a sizeable contingent of U.S. forces remains in Iraq to this day — working alongside Iraqi security forces to fight the Islamic State, among other terrorist groups and sources of instability.

Leaving Iraq would also open the door for the United States' regional rival, Iran, to take its place. Iran is intent on retaining control over its political capital in Iraq, especially as widening U.S. sanctions on Iranian commercial ties threatens the vast web of Tehran's economic inroads and business ties in Iraq. U.S. ally Israel has also threatened to strike Iranian proxies within Iraq — including thousands of Iran-backed militia members who are part of the popular mobilization units — should they start to threaten Israel with missiles. In addition, removing U.S forces from Iraq would also alarm Washington's Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which it has been encouraging to invest in Iraqi reconstruction efforts to help counter Iran from doing so.

Beyond supporting the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad, Washington's relationship with the Kurdish regional government in Arbil will likely become even more valuable as well, as it tries to reassure allied Kurdish forces that it is not wholly abandoning all Kurds in the wake of its withdrawal from the Syrian territories, where U.S. forces have worked closely with Syrian Kurds for years. 

However, both the economic threat of U.S. sanctions, as well as the physical threat of a potential strike on Iraqi militia forces, have also fired up pro-Iranian Iraqis (both in Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq) who want to defend against foreign interference — contributing to the momentum of anti-U.S. sentiment now building in Baghdad.

The Rise of Anti-U.S. Sentiment

Over the past year, an increasing number of nationalist and Iran-allied politicians have begun calling for the Iraqi government to consider expelling U.S. forces, and to reassess Iraq's relationship with the United States more broadly. This was recently evidenced when President Donald Trump visited U.S. troops in Iraq in December and ruffled political feathers by not meeting with Iraqi leaders while he was there. Qais al-Khazali, who is head of one of the major Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, quickly seized on the upheaval following Trump's visit by publicly calling for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. And while not all Iraqis support politicians such as al-Khazali's close alliance with the Iranian government, many do share their anti-imperialist and anti-Western sentiment.

A graphic showing the party breakdown in Iraq's National Assembly.

The election of a more nationalist parliament in May 2018 laid the political groundwork for some of the increasing backlash against the United States' extended stay in Iraq. Cross-sectarian coalitions, like that of nationalist Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, won the most seats by running campaigns that called for Iraqis to reject imperialist projects in their country. And Iranian-allied political blocs with deep militia ties, such as that of politician Hadi al-Amiri, won the second-highest number of seats.

Washington's hardening resolve to limit Iran's influence and economic activity across the Middle East has also fueled Iraqis' growing discontent. Iraq is one of the biggest foreign markets for Iranian goods and services, meaning its citizens would suffer if Iraqi companies were no longer able to easily transact with Iranian companies.

Political Constraints 

However, pleas from Iraqi lawmakers and the public to reassess their country's ties with the United States — no matter how noisy — won't ultimately succeed in fundamentally changing U.S.-Iraq relations.

Any bill to expel the United States from Iraq would also require amending the Strategic Framework Agreement signed by former President George W. Bush in 2008, which stipulates that U.S. forces are in Iraq only at the invitation of the Iraqi government. Iraqi President Barham Salih, for one, has expressed his support for retaining the agreement and Baghdad's bilateral relationship with Washington. This also means that even if parliament were to pass such a bill amending the agreement (majority support doesn't seem to currently exist), the final decision would go to Iraq's Supreme Court because it involves matters of national security.

As long as Iraq’s security concerns remain acute, the country's ties with Washington are unlikely to break.

Nonetheless, the debate in Baghdad will continue to rage on — deepening divisions between Shiite political leaders who fall on opposing sides. The resulting gridlock will further thwart the Iraqi government's ability to finish basic functions, such as completing the appointment of its Cabinet where the justice, interior and defense minister posts still remain vacant. In the near future, this means that the government will also struggle to address the unrest in Iraq's southern provinces expected this summer when temperatures rise and water and electricity shortages become more acute.

No End in Sight 

With that said, this current flare-up of anti-U.S. sentiment is, of course, part of the long-standing fallout from the U.S. invasion in 2003. When Washington forcibly removed Saddam Hussein, it inadvertently gave its rival Iran an opening in the Shiite-majority country — which Tehran has taken advantage of ever since. This complexity has only increased in recent years, with the United States stating that it wants regime change in Tehran.

But above all else, the enduring severity of the counterterror fight is what has kept — and will continue to keep — relations between Iraq and the United States as firm as they are. While the territorial caliphate of the Islamic State is largely defeated, the U.S. Defense Department recently assessed that the group was still a potent force in Iraq, adding that it could also resurge in Syria without appropriate pressure to keep it down. This sobering assessment has solidified Iraq's dependence on both U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias, which are both integral in helping Baghdad on the front line of its grueling counterterror fight. Therefore, as long as Iraq’s security concerns remain acute, the country's ties with Washington are unlikely to break.

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