Almost three years after Iraq declared victory against the so-called Islamic State (IS), whether and to what extent foreign countries continue to assist Baghdad in maintaining security will affect geopolitical alliances, counterterrorism operations, corruption and, indirectly, numerous other issues in the country.
How new prime minister and Iraqi national intelligence service chief Mustafa Kadhimi deals with domestic demands and balances relations with the US and Iran, especially, will also determine whether progress can be made towards a state monopoly on arms during the roughly one year he is expected to remain in office prior to elections.
In late August, as part of the Iraq-US Strategic Dialogue, president Donald Trump reportedly told Kadhimi that all US troops would be out of the country by 2023.
The US leads the anti-IS international coalition and is the largest donor to the Iraqi government in both the security and humanitarian sectors. The pullout is likely to play a key role in how Iraqis plan for the coming years and whether they look elsewhere for assistance.
Some of the Sunni tribal “Sahwa”, instrumental in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq in the post-2003 period, have told this author in previous years that they asked Iran for help after alleged promises from the US failed to materialize in 2014 during the beginning of the fight against IS. Also, parts of the Peshmerga – generally known for their greater proximity to the US than other Iraqi forces – in the area around Sulaymaniyah said that Iran was also helping them. However, a lessened threat from IS and heightened capabilities of Iraqi forces would in theory make foreign security assistance less necessary.
Both Iran-linked armed groups and significant parts of the population have long pushed for a complete US exit from the country. However, some – including many within the Iraqi official security forces themselves – claim that Iraqi security forces cannot hold up on their own against both IS and other non-state actors and continue to need the training, equipment and intelligence provided by the coalition.
The January 3 US attack on Iranian general Qassem Solaimani and Kataib Hezbollah commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at the Baghdad airport escalated tensions over American troop presence in the country. Subsequent months have seen countless attacks by little-known groups suspected of links to Kataib Hezbollah, officially designated by the US as a terrorist group since 2009 but which has brigades on the government payroll as part of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), and threats by several Iran-linked armed and political factions in Iraq against both Western forces and any Iraqis in contact with them.
The US-trained Iraqi Counterterrorism Services (CTS) were tasked in June with carrying out a raid of a Kataib Hezbollah headquarters in southern Baghdad but were forced to release most of those arrested shortly thereafter.
The CTS were roundly seen as heroes in the fight against IS starting in 2014 and continued receiving US support earlier this year, even after coalition support to all Iraqi forces had temporarily and officially paused due to skyrocketing tensions. Calls were in August made by a prominent Iraqi Shia politician to send the CTS even to restore order to Basra, the southern economic powerhouse and oil hub of the country, as these forces are often seen as the best trained and most trustworthy.
Much discussion on Iraq has centered on alliances assumed on the basis of sect, with the assumption that Shia Iraqis are closer to Iran and Sunnis closer to the West. The anti-government protests that began in October 2019 and led to the resignation of the previous government were however almost entirely in the Shia-dominant central and southern parts of the country. Many of the protestors railed against interference by both the US and Iran in Iraq. Some of the Iran-linked PMU have also been accused of assassinating protestors and activists perceived as being close to the US.
In my years of reporting from frontlines, the capital and other areas of Iraq since late 2014, I have found that many – both Shia and Sunni – Iraqi Army officers tend to be supportive of a continuing US presence in the country due to the training, intelligence and weapons they receive as a result.
The only exception has been during reporting near the Syria-Iraq border, where some members of one division were adamant that the PMU were not given enough credit in the international media for the role the officers claimed they had played in the defeat of IS and openly voiced anti-US sentiment, saying that journalists would not be allowed into the area unless they portrayed the PMU in a better light than they thus far had.
In recent weeks, Kadhimi sent the army to monitor border crossings, reportedly resulting almost immediately in a large amount of customs revenue that would otherwise have been lost.
Nations not within the coalition contribute through both direct and indirect channels to security and lack thereof in the country. Some analysts have noted that while the US and Western nations tend to focus on strengthening state institutions, some regional actors such as Iran have often resorted to strengthening non-state actors to increase their influence in the country, thereby weakening the state significantly.
However, on the future of international security assistance for Iraq from Western nations, one officer from a European nation who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the question really should be “why [should we] do security assistance in Iraq?”
The officer noted also that “from a short-sighted perspective there is no threat towards Europe and the US from Iraq right now that calls for or justifies (from a political/homeland perspective) international troops in Iraq”.
The US-led international coalition has pulled out of over half a dozen bases in recent months but attacks continue on the ones still hosting international military personnel.
IS also continues to conduct attacks in several areas throughout the country, especially in areas disputed between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Denmark is meanwhile set to take the lead of the NATO training mission in the country at the end of this year. A Danish May 26 unclassified Situational and Threat Assessment said that the security situation had worsened in recent months and that Shia armed groups pose a “political and military threat to Western interests and presence in the country”.
Iraq is however being left ever more to stand more on its own two feet.
The US seems confident that the country is well-positioned to ward off any resurgence of armed groups that might pose a risk to its interests in the region and beyond. Or it may feel it is simply no longer welcome to the extent it once believed it was, despite repeated assurances from Kadhimi that Iraq and the US enjoy close relations.
International security assistance from the nation that has given the most in terms of equipment, ammunition and training in recent years to state forces will thus be significantly reduced. The hope is that the thousands of troops trained, millions of dollars divested in equipment and continuing humanitarian aid will nonetheless help ensure security as much as possible.