Part of the ongoing efforts to move its foreign policy focus away from the ‘forever wars’ in the Middle East towards the renewed great power competition with China and Russia, the end of the US combat missions in Iraq seems to confirm Washington’s progressive disengagement from the region, anticipated by the decision to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan.
The agreement, which will see the US role in Iraq shifting towards an advisory and training role by the end of 2021, was announced during the meeting between the US President Joe Biden and the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Washington on the 26th of July. The US troops, which in the last year have already been reduced from 5.200 to 2.500, are part of the Operation Inherent Resolve, the international military intervention led by the US against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), which took control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Since the end of the Caliphate declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from Mosul, ISIS has been vanquished as a territorial entity. As an insurgent terrorist group, however, it continues to represent a serious threat to the security of Iraq and the whole region. The group claimed the 19 July terrorist attack at the Wahailat market in the Sadr City district of Baghdad that killed at least 30 people and injured 50 others, an important reminder of ISIS’ resilience in the country.
However, ISIS’ resuming capability to stage new attacks are not the only factor contributing to the deterioration of the security context of Iraq, that suffers also from a fragmentation of security sector and a proliferation of armed groups and militias, whose conflicting agendas and different affiliations are threatening the very unity of the state.
Some of these armed groups are part of the al-Hasd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Force-PMF), a coalition of Shia militias which have proved to be a thorn in the US side, especially after the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Qasem Soleimani, in a US drone strike at the Baghdad International Airport on 3 January 2020. As a result of the attack, that also killed the deputy chief of the PMF, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Council of Representatives (Iraqi parliament) approved two days later a non-binding resolution calling for the end of the US military presence in Iraq.
Under increasing pressure from rogue militias and armed groups, targeting US troops in frequent rocket and drone attacks, Washington is walking a thin line in Iraq, where it needs to keep Iran in check while waiting to find a modus vivendi with Teheran. Given the uncertainty about the negotiations for the US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, also known as Iran Nuclear Deal), Washington has opted not to withdraw its forces from the country in full, maintaining a limited military footprint and giving Kadhimi a trump card that he may use to his own advantage as the early parliamentary elections approach in October.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region