Iraq is calling for the rapid withdrawal of US troops

"Iraq urges the swift departure of US-led forces amid rising tensions fueled by recent airstrikes and calls for withdrawal. Prime Minister al-Sudani emphasizes a negotiated exit, while concerns mount over Iraq becoming a focal point in regional conflicts.

2024 01 08T193634Z 1 LYNXMPEK070Q3 RTROPTP 4 IRAQ SECURITY USA scaled
FILE PHOTO: Military vehicles of U.S. soldiers are seen at the al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq, January 13, 2020. REUTERS/John Davison/File Photo

Iraq desires the departure of US-led military forces from its territory through a negotiated, swift, and orderly process, as conveyed by Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. While no specific deadline has been set, there is a growing urgency driven by long-standing appeals from predominantly Shia Muslim factions, many of which have close ties to Iran, for the US-led coalition to withdraw. This demand has intensified following US strikes on militant groups linked to Iran, also part of Iraq’s official security forces.

The airstrikes, responding to numerous drone and missile attacks on US forces amid Israel’s offensive in Gaza, have instilled concerns in Baghdad about the potential for Iraq to become a focal point in a regional conflict once again. Al-Sudani underscored the need to reorganize the relationship with the coalition to prevent it from being targeted or used as justification for destabilization by any domestic or foreign entity in Iraq and the broader region.

In outlining his vision for the coalition’s future since announcing the initiation of the closure process on January 5, Al-Sudani stressed that the exit should be orchestrated through a process involving “understanding and dialogue.”

A potential US withdrawal would heighten Washington’s apprehensions about Iran’s influence over Iraq’s ruling elite, particularly considering the ascendancy of Iranian-backed Shiite groups in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion.

On Monday, the Pentagon asserted its lack of intention to withdraw American troops, emphasizing their presence at the invitation of the Iraqi government. As OPEC’s second-largest oil producer, Iraq has been vocal in its criticism of Israel’s Gaza campaign.

Despite condemning attacks by armed groups on foreign forces and diplomatic missions in Iraq as illegal and against the nation’s interests, the Iraqi government has taken measures to apprehend perpetrators and prevent such strikes. Simultaneously, Baghdad has criticized US strikes on bases used by these groups and a recent attack on a high-ranking militia commander in central Baghdad, characterizing them as serious violations of sovereignty.

Armed groups, such as Kataeb Hezbollah and Haraket Hezbollah al-Nujaba, exploit their affiliation with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), initially formed as a militia in 2014 and now recognized as a state security force, as a guise. When targeting US forces, these armed groups operate independently of the official chain of command, identifying themselves under the banner of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. Subsequently, in the face of US retaliation, they mourn their casualties as PMF members, leveraging the growing anti-US sentiment.

The United States, along with its coalition, invaded Iraq, overthrowing former leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, withdrew in 2011, and returned in 2014 to combat the Islamic State as part of an international coalition. Currently, there are approximately 2,500 US troops stationed in Iraq. Despite the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in 2017 and its subsequent decline, Al-Sudani contends that the coalition’s mission is long obsolete.

In 2020, Iraq’s parliament voted to exit the coalition shortly after the US targeted Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and a senior Iraqi militant commander near Baghdad airport. The following year, the US declared the conclusion of its combat mission in Iraq, transitioning to advising and assisting Iraqi security forces, though this alteration had minimal impact on the ground.

The current conflict in Gaza has brought the issue back to the forefront, with numerous Iraqi groups closely aligned with Tehran and instrumental in bringing Al-Sudani’s government to power calling for the complete withdrawal of all foreign forces. This aligns with the longstanding desire of Iran and its regional allies for the departure of foreign forces from Iraq.

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