Iraq has become a pawn on the chessboard of global politics and as such, the parliament’s vote on the withdrawal of US troops has put the country in a severe dilemma and opens the door for more chaos ahead.
After the killing of Iran’s Soleimani, many Iraqis were furious. Not necessarily due to the killing per se, but what they consider a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and thus international law. The image of the liberating uber-power USA, a friend in keeping the country safe and stable, transformed into one of the old cliché imperialistic power, present solely for its own agenda.
As a result, the Iraqi parliament conducted a vote on Prime Minister Mahdi’s plan to expel the US. While the parliament agreed and voted in the motion’s favor, it was far from a united effort. While some members of parliament utilized the vote to express their resentment against the US, others see the risk a withdrawal produces, both militarily and economically.
Militarily because, so far, the 5,200 troops currently stationed in Iraq have protected the country against IS. A withdrawal would result in another security vacuum, similar to the one that had created IS in the first place. To this day, the terror group is conducting attacks in Iraq. It is a virtual certainty that these would significantly increase. Particularly as the US’ withdrawal could trigger a domino effect, as with their withdrawal, European and other coalition forces may have to follow since they are dependent on US logistical and technical support.
Economically, the options for the US to punish Iran exist in abundance, and most importantly, any punishment would also affect Iran, as its economy has strong ties with Iraq’s, which makes it thus even more worthwhile for Washington to be rather adamant.
President Trump has already threatened that a forced withdrawal could require Iraq to be held accountable to make debt payments to the US, while also potentially being sanctioned severely. Moreover, Iraq could risk the freeze of its accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, into which it deposits oil sales proceeds.
As preposterous as it may sound, President Trump had already eluded to this option when he announced, “right now we have their money.” Another option would be to cease Iraq’s exemptions that allow it to purchase Iranian gas to power its southern electricity producers. These are responsible for at least 35 percent of the electricity supplied to Iraq.
Despite the dilemma Iraq finds itself in, Prime Minister Mahdi currently appears to proceed with the plan of a troop withdrawal. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Pompeo promptly refused and accused Mahdi of being under Iranian pressure, while the Iraqis wanted the US to continue its mission, Pompeo said.
Pompeo is accurate when he refers to the pressure applied to Mahdi, however. The country still appears to have mixed feelings about US troops, despite the overthrow of dictator and mass murderer Saddam Hussein and the subsequent fight against IS. Moreover, with the withdrawal of the US, the Shiite majority in the country is supposed to be appeased. However, this majority also cultivates relations to Tehran, which has also sought a US removal.
Realpolitik in the country is meanwhile left to the Sunnis, of whom many boycotted parliaments vote. In fact, only 170 out of 328 members participated in the process. The Sunnis are cognizant that a US withdrawal does not only play into the hands of Iran but begs the opportunity for Iraq to become Tehran’s satellite state. Furthermore, despite PM Mahdi’s pledge that a withdrawal would improve the relations with the neighbor, reality suggests that Iraq could become just as isolated from the international community as Iran, once Tehran begins to control Baghdad’s politics and agendas.
Despite all, Prime Minister Mahdi appears to be ready to face these possible consequences for now. All that gives hope for Mahdi’s inclination to compromise is his request to the National Security Council to provide options on how to proceed.
These options consisted of a as soon as possible withdrawal and a successive withdrawal that would negate an immediate vacuum for IS. However, the Security Council also proposed a third option, which it explicitly recommended: a road map for renegotiation of the current agreement under which the US is present and the ultimately go-ahead for the US to remain.
Regardless of how the Iraqi government will ultimately decide, there will be consequences from one side or the other. Both Iran and the US have geopolitical interests in Iraq, which is not inclined to become dependent on Washington nor Tehran. However, the current situation has left Iraq with little to no choice but to make the utmost best of its position as a pawn on a chessboard, with its next move being crucial.