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Sweet Revenge for Iran Would Be to Push U.S. Out of Iraq

Khalid Al-Ansary and Marc Champion
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Sweet Revenge for Iran Would Be to Push U.S. Out of Iraq

(Bloomberg) -- Perhaps the sweetest revenge Iran could take for Qassem Soleimani’s killing would be to secure what the military commander was unable to achieve in life: expulsion of the U.S. from neighboring Iraq.That goal has come a step closer with Iraq’s parliament directing the government to cancel a standing request to host U.S. forces, and the leak of a draft U.S. letter accepting the “sovereign” decision and informing of preparations for departure.

But President Donald Trump said Tuesday it isn’t the right time for the U.S. to pull out of Iraq. “Eventually we want to be able to allow Iraq to run its own affairs,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “This isn’t the right point.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was adamant on Monday that “there’s been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period.” U.S. officials said the letter was no more than a draft and should never have been made public.

Adding to the sense of confusion, Trump tweeted a threat to impose sweeping sanctions on Iraq, if it should kick American troops out without compensation.

“Iran believes with good reason it now has a chance to accomplish what it has been trying to do for many years, to push the U.S. out,” said William Wechsler, a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, who now heads the Middle East program of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

Sunday’s non-binding resolution marks just the beginning of a negotiation, rather than the end of the road for 17 years of close U.S. involvement in Iraq, according to Iraqi legislators and analysts, as well as Wechsler. The irony, he said, is that coming after months of anti-Iranian protests in Iraq, “this is all happening at a moment when the Iranian influence in Iraq had been under the greatest pressure since we invaded.”

Islamic State

Any negotiation of a U.S. draw-down may first have to be done among Iraq’s different political factions, which break down largely along religious and ethnic lines. In a country that has been gradually rebuilding a sense of nationhood since the bloody sectarianism that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq’s minorities in particular see the U.S. as a guarantor against Iranian influence, Shiite domination and the return of Islamic State.

The vote to expel the U.S. was boycotted by most Sunni Arab and Kurdish MPs, passing by 170 ballots to none against in a chamber of 328 legislators. Even as parliament met, crowds that have been protesting government policy and Iranian influence since October were still on the streets of many towns.

In Nasiriya, a mainly Shiite city of about half a million inhabitants 225 miles south of Baghdad, protesters blocked an attempted funeral procession for Soleimani at the weekend, even as large crowds attended a massive ceremony in his honor in Kerbala, the site of a holy shrine closer to the capital. The Nasiriya protesters then set fire to an office of the Popular Mobilization Units, the umbrella organization that includes pro-Iran militias.

“Those who were out to protest Iranian or U.S. influence are Iraqis, and they don’t want Iraq to be an arena to settle accounts,” said one protester, Ayad Al-Rumi, speaking by phone from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. “We’re working to build a new Iraqi state, away from all the plans drawn by other countries.”

Firepower and Clout

Like so many protesters for better government, from Iran to Chile or Hong Kong, they may not get their way, and their message -- which already drew violent attacks before Soleimani’s death -- requires increasing bravery. Iraq’s pro-Iranian militias wield significant firepower and political clout, and the U.S. remains deeply unpopular with a significant part of the population.

Since invading to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, the U.S. has spent an estimated $1 trillion dollars on operations in Iraq and lost more than 4,000 troops. But the impact on Iraq was devastating, and the U.S. -- which in recent years often appeared mainly interested in countering Islamic State or Iran in Iraq -- is unpopular among much of the population.

“The decision was based on saving Iraq’s sovereignty, security and interests,” said Ahmed Al-Asadi, a Shiite lawmaker who backed Sunday’s vote to recommend expelling U.S. forces. “One of its main goals is to spare Iraq from any repercussions that may occur in the region.” With Islamic State defeated, he added, that decision “should have been taken in the past.”What happens next remains opaque. Caretaker Prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has indicated he will act on the legislation, but its wording is vague, making it unclear exactly what the consequences for U.S. personnel would be.

Iraqis have for years resisted pressure from the U.S. and Iran alike to choose between them, reluctant to become overly dependent on either. That has thwarted Washington’s more ambitious goals in Iraq, but also Soleimani’s designs for turning the country into a second Lebanon, run by a compliant Shiite party and associated militia, akin to Hezbollah.

Economic Embargo

Many Iraqi politicians appear aware that air power and training provided by the U.S.-led coalition has been vital to the campaign to suppress Islamic State, which at one point controlled swathes of the country.

“Can the Iraqi government give a guarantee that it doesn’t need the coalition forces in military, security, intelligence and economic terms?” said Vian Sabri, a lawmaker from the Kurdistan Democratic Party. “Security-wise, ISIS still exist as an ideology and group.”Many also recognize the risks of being forced by an enraged U.S. president to join Iran’s economically devastating isolation from global financial and investment markets.

“Anyone who lived the days of the economic embargo in the 1990s will feel the magnitude of the catastrophe that will befall us,” said Ihsan Al-Shammari, the director of Baghdad’s Political Thought Center and ex-press adviser to former Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.Even if a new government should implement the resolution, it could amount to less than it seems, according to Abdullah Al-Kharbeet, a Sunni lawmaker who described the vote as “ink on paper” with no value or legal consequences.

A dis-invitation to U.S. troops could still allow for trainers to continue working with the Iraqi armed forces, and for U.S. jets to fly counter-Islamic State operations from the northern provinces of Kurdistan. Monday’s leaked letter has added to uncertainty over U.S. intentions.

“People don’t want to be subordinate,” said Al-Kharbeet, “neither to the U.S. nor to Iran, nor even to politicians.”

(Updates with Trump comment in third paragraph.)

--With assistance from Lin Noueihed, Michael Shepard and Samuel Dodge.

To contact the reporters on this story: Khalid Al-Ansary in Baghdad at kalansary@bloomberg.net;Marc Champion in London at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Benjamin Harvey at bharvey11@bloomberg.net, Alan Crawford

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