US fears of an imminent, large-scale attack on its soldiers in Iraq is entirely valid. Iran, with its arms, seems ready to do whatever it takes to drive American troops out of the country immediately.
US secretary of defence Mark Esper was very confident in refuting a letter sent to his Iraqi counterparts in January, saying that the US military is preparing for “movement out of Iraq”, after killing the Iranian commander Qassam Soleimani. Both Esper and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, insisted at the time that there had been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq.
But this seems not to be entirely accurate. According to the former Iraqi prime minister-designate Mohamed Tawfik Allawi, the US has plans in place to leave Iraq in two years from now.
Iraqi president Barham Salih had asked Allawi to form a government at the beginning of February to end a long-lasting power vacuum after young Iraqis took to the streets in large numbers, asking for the removal of the government and an end to corruption.
Around mid-February, he held a crucial meeting in his office with the US ambassador Mathew Tueller and other American diplomats, discussing the future of the US-led coalition against Isis in Iraq.
According to Allawi, the American diplomats told him they were under “great pressure” to withdraw troops from Iraq, and would leave in two years’ time. Allawi quickly offered to pen down their withdrawal proposal in an official agreement between the two countries to guarantee US compliance.
The US officials agreed on the principle, but were interested in exploring Iran’s position first. Days later, after another meeting between Allawi, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, and other Iranian officials, Iran turned down the American offer. According to Allawi, Iranian officials reported that the Iraqi parliament had already voted them out and “must, therefore, leave now”.
The Iranian diplomats were referring to the decision taken in January by the Iraqi parliament urging the government to oust all foreign troops after the targeting of Soleimani and the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed with him in the same drone strike.
The US State Department refused to comment on “private diplomatic discussions”. The Iranian embassy in London and the spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abbas Moussavi, also didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Allawi reached the one-month constitutional deadline in March without being able to form a cabinet. Perhaps he was the right man in the wrong place. After spending over an hour on the phone with him, I realised how inevitable this failure was.
After all, being the prime minister of Iraq is the most difficult job in the Middle East. A low-profile politician, who lacks charisma but maintains an aggresively strict stand against corruption, Allawi was always seen by the Iraqi political elite as an outsider, despite holding ministerial office twice before. Allawi accepted the nomination while thousands of Iraqis were protesting since last October against the corruption that has gripped Iraq since the US ousted Sadam Hussein in 2003.
They wanted to topple the government of the incompetent prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi and bring about an end to the sectarian quotas in politics and other basic services. But, despite his biting criticism of the political establishment and some half-baked promises to the downtrodden Iraqis, Allawi was instantly rejected by thousands of protesters as – ironically – a stooge of the political elite.
Yesterday, the Iraqi intelligence chief Mustapha al-Kadhimi was announced as the third nomination for the PM’s office this year. His appointment reflects the scale of paralysis the leadership vacuum has imposed on the country, which stands on the edge of an economic disaster and faces the coronavirus outbreak.
When Allawi accepted office, Iran-linked militias were, simultaneously, shelling the US embassy in Baghdad and military bases hosting American troops in the north and west with a fusillade of rockets to force them out.
On Monday (6 April), rockets even landed close to the site of the American oil service company Halliburton in Basra province.
As Allawi confirmed to me, Iran has long been aware of the heated discussion within President Trump’s administration around the troops’ posture in Iraq, and the stark difference between Esper and his Pentagon aides’ statements on the one hand, and reality on the other.
With the coronavirus hitting Iran hard, Trump imposed even more severe economic sanctions on the country in an attempt to cripple the regime. But, yet on the other hand, his own shambolic management of the outbreak on US soil might have also created a window of opportunity for Iran to apply more pressure on the US to leave Iraq.
The US plans also reflect an eagerness to pull out from the wider region, a strategy which this administration has paved the way for in Afghanistan by signing a peace agreement with the Taliban after 19 years of fighting.
But any news about withdrawing US troops from Iraq means utter dismay for the Sunnis and the Kurds. The presence of US forces is for them an insurance policy against a comeback by Isis and, more importantly, it strikes a delicate balance between all Iraqi religious sects and political powers. The government of Kurdistan (an autonomous region in the north) was determined to maintain the American presence. Allawi told me: “I felt the Kurds were more than ready to grant the US troops alternative military bases if they are to be driven out by the central government in Baghdad.” This means, he says, “Iraq’s political rupture for good”.
The escalation by US troops and the Iran-backed militias is putting Iraq at risk of an all-out military conflict. This trims down the possible scenarios for the US future in Iraq to only two: all-out war or a departure sooner rather than later. As ambassador Tueller told Allawi in their meeting: “We are not planning to stay here forever.” An Iranian success in forcing the US out of Iraq might now seem more feasible.
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