Joe Biden announced, Monday, July 26, alongside the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, a “New phase” of the American military presence in Iraq. “We will not be in a combat mission at the end of the year” in Iraq but “Our cooperation against terrorism will continue even in this new phase”, said the US president in the Oval Office, where he had invited the Iraqi chief executive.
“The relationship will evolve completely towards a role of training, advice, assistance and sharing of information” Iraqi forces engaged against the jihadist group Islamic State (IS), and “There will be no more forces with a combat mission by December 31, 2021” in Iraq, the US State Department said in a statement.
According to this same text, “The United States reaffirms its respect for Iraqi sovereignty and laws and pledges to provide the resources Iraq needs to preserve its territorial integrity.” “Our relationship is stronger than ever”, said the Iraqi Prime Minister, who is seeking to consolidate his very precarious position, three months before the legislative elections.
No major change
At the head of a country ravaged by corruption, poverty and pandemic, where IS sleeper cells still strike, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is torn between the American ally and powerful pro-Iran factions. In fact, experts are not expecting any major change, as the American military presence in the country is no longer considered an active intervention force.
The majority of US troops, sent in 2014 as part of an international coalition to help Baghdad defeat ISIS, were withdrawn under President Donald Trump. And officially, the approximately 2,500 American soldiers still deployed in the country are not fighting and are already playing a role of “Advisers” and of “Trainers”.
With this announced end of the “Combat mission”, the Iraqi Prime Minister hopes to regain the ascendancy a little over the powerful pro-Tehran factions grouped together within Hachd Al-Chaabi, a coalition that is both paramilitary and integrated into the State.
Risk of a “political cost”
These factions, which are suspected of having carried out some fifty attacks against American interests in Iraq since the beginning of the year, are calling for the outright departure of all the troops deployed by Washington. But this seems highly unlikely, as residual ISIS cells remain active in the country. The jihadist group claimed responsibility for a deadly attack just over a week ago in the Iraqi capital.
Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq scholar at the University of Chicago’s Pearson Institute, argues that the US president would risk suffering a “Political cost” therefore if the scenario of 2011 recurs. Namely an American withdrawal widely regarded as a major strategic error, which allowed the emergence of IS.
Iraq is also an important link in the strategic framework of the United States, which leads the operations of the anti-jihadist coalition in neighboring Syria. And there is no question for Washington to abandon the country to Iranian influence, in the midst of renewed tensions between Iran and the United States – even if the latter still intend to save the 2015 international agreement on Iranian nuclear power.