In the aftermath of the Soleimani killing, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution on the weekend that ought to send home the approximately 5,000 US soldiers stationed in the country (from 160,000 previously). It would be the beginning of a major withdrawal of all foreign troops that are part of the US-led alliance to fight the Islamic State in the region.
Moreover, the Iraqi parliament also concluded that foreign troops should no longer be able to use Iraqi airspace in the future. These decisions oblige the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who initiated the resolution over the weekend. Mahdi had previously pushed for the withdrawal of the US and other foreign troops.
However, the urgency had been increased after what he called a “political murder” on Iranian general Kassem Soleimani and the head of the Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The end of the deployment of foreign troops in Iraq would be in the interests of both Iraq and the United States, Mahdi also stated during a special session in parliament. At the same time, a quick withdrawal was “fundamentally and for practical reasons,” the best for Iraq, and despite all the difficulties and instabilities that such a step would bring with it. Mahdi eluded to the years 2011 to 2014 when no foreign combat troops had a presence in the country, which, according to Mahdi, did not harm relations with the United States.
The US’ response, however, did not take long. On Sunday morning, Secretary of State Pompeo appeared on CNN, ABC, Fox, and other programs to justify the events of the past few days. Most importantly, however, Pompeo rebuffed Mahdi’s request for a departure schedule of all foreign troops categorically. He was confident that the Iraqi people wanted the United States in the country so that the fight against terrorism could continue.
Moreover, Mahdi was only the acting Prime Minister of Iraq, who, according to Pompeo, was under pressure from Iran and thus was catering to the demands for the regime in Tehran: “He is under enormous threats from the very Iranian leadership that it is that we are pushing back against,” Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday” with Chris Wallace.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s reaction was unexpectedly more direct. According to reports, Trump has threatened massive sanctions in the event that the Iraqi government expels US troops. If Iraq did not meet the US conditions for a withdrawal, the US government would impose sanctions “like never before,” Trump said on Sunday evening.
Besides the sanctions, the government in Baghdad would have to reimburse the cost of specific US-built infrastructure in Iraq, including a modern airbase worth a billion-dollar. “We will not deduct unless they refund us,” said Trump. If no amicable solution between the two could be found, sanctions to which “the Iran sanctions will appear somewhat harmless,” will be imposed on Iraq. At this point, the Iraqi government has not yet decided to confirm the parliament’s bill. However, it only seems to be a matter of time.
What makes it so straight forward to demand the troops’ withdrawal is that the current assignment is not part of a conventional Status of Forces agreement, but part of a less formal agreement from 2014, and ultimately relies on the Iraqi government’s approval. Accordingly, if the executive obeyed parliament’s will and the United States did not leave, it may violate international law, as the US could be considered an illegal occupying force. Apart from the symbolic effect, however, Iraq has no means of forcing the United States and its partners to leave even if the government, despite the US’ warnings, confirmed parliament’s bill.
Meanwhile, the US-led international coalition to fight IS has suspended its operations in Iraq over security concerns. The suspension affected both the training of Iraqi security forces and the direct fight against IS, the coalition communicated on Sunday. The 81-country coalition began its mission in June 2014, when ISIS expanded in the region and committed genocide against the Yazidi in Iraq.