WASHINGTON - Last week’s U.S. announcement that it would withdraw more than 2,000 of its troops from Iraq this month appears to have emboldened Iran-backed Shiite militias, with some groups vowing to keep up their fight against the remaining American troops in the country.
The commander of U.S. Central Command, Marine General Frank McKenzie, said September 9 that the U.S. would reduce its troops in Iraq from about 5,200 to 3,000. The decision, he said, was made in consultation with the Iraqi government and the anti-IS coalition partners, and “in recognition of the great progress the Iraqi forces have made.”
Though unintended, the significant reduction in U.S. military footprint is a partial fulfillment of a long-standing goal for Iran and its allied Iraqi militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to expel Americans from the oil-rich country, some experts say.
Some Iraq observers say anti-American forces can now become overconfident, launching more attacks with the hope of forcing a complete U.S. withdrawal by the November U.S. presidential elections.
“The KH and PMF try to market it as though they forced the reduction and might be encouraged [also by Iran] to further provoke the U.S. during October, in the run-up to the elections,” said Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, founding president of the Irbil-based Middle East Research Institute.
In 2009, the U.S. designated Kataib Hezbollah (KH) as a terror group “for threatening the peace and stability of Iraq” and attacking the U.S. interests in the country.
Ala'Aldeen added that Iran, on the other hand, appears more cautious so as not to provoke an unpredictable Trump administration before the election.
The PMF was initially created with the help of Iran to help a demoralized Iraqi army fight the Islamic State (IS) terror group in 2014. Though PMF fighters are on the Iraqi government’s payroll, analysts say in practice they remain closely dependent on Iran without answering to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who also is the commander in chief.
When the U.S. troops abandoned the Camp Taji military base near the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, last month, pro-Iran militias came out publicly to depict the U.S. move as their “resistance” bearing fruit.
"I think that the withdrawal process came as a result of continuing resistance operations in the region,” said KH spokesman Muhammad Mohi in a local radio interview. “It became insecure for these forces [to stay]."
More recently, an anti-missile defense system near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad launched this week to intercept incoming rockets, while at least two roadside bombs reportedly targeted a convoy transporting U.S.-led coalition military equipment.
Though none of the recent attacks have resulted in any casualties or significant material damage, they show how anti-American militias continue to possess the ability to threaten American assets in Iraq.
In remarks reported by local media, Kamal Al-Hasnawi, deputy leader of Iranian-backed Harakat al-Abdal, which also is part of the PMF, spoke in more threatening terms following the publication of the news that more than 2,000 U.S. troops are leaving the country.
“Military operations against the American presence under all its names will continue,” he vowed, “until all those forces leave as soon as possible in accordance with the decision of the Iraqi parliament.”
Early in January, following the U.S. killing of KH leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis along with Iran’s IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani, the parliament passed a nonbinding resolution that asked for the removal of American troops and other foreign forces. U.S. President Donald Trump then threatened to hit Iraq with severe sanctions in return.
In an interview with NBC last week, McKenzie said he had seen an increase in attacks on his forces in Iraq in recent months. He added that the decision to withdraw the troops, however, was not caused by the increased attacks.
"We have had more indirect fire attacks around and against our bases the first half of this year than we did the first half of last year," he said. "They have not been particularly lethal and that's a good thing, but they are continuing," he added.
According to the Pentagon, the decision to reduce its troops to 3,000 comes as years of combat training have prepared some elements of the Iraqi security forces to take on the IS remnants on their own. Trump has vowed to bring 1,000 more U.S. troops home by year’s end.
In Iraq, views are mixed on the preparedness of local forces to combat the IS militancy. The Kurdish leadership, which favors a U.S. presence, recently warned against increased IS activity and the inability of the Iraqi forces in Kirkuk in the north and other disputed territories between Baghdad and Irbil.
Kurdish officials rejected a VOA request for comment because of the sensitivity of the topic of the U.S. withdrawal in Iraq.
Other Iraqi politicians, particularly in the Shiite circles, say training and equipping the Iraqi army is enough to prevent IS regrouping.
Thamer Theban, a member of the Iraqi parliament with the PMF political wing Fateh Coalition, told VOA that “Iraqi security forces are capable of maintaining Iraq's safety."
He added that the U.S. military presence in his country would give “legitimacy” to PMF elements such as Kataib Hezbollah to attack American bases.
“The presence of U.S. forces causes confusion and invites foreign fighters and the intervention of regional countries,” he said.
Some analysts, though, doubt that lowering U.S. troop levels is the right approach to what they view as a resurgent jihadist threat.
“Two thousand troops inside of Iraq is not enough to focus on [IS],” said Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, who previously served as a U.S. military intelligence officer in Iraq.
Pregent said that while the departure of U.S. troops undoubtedly serves as a propaganda tool for PMF, it also could give greater latitude to Washington to respond to militia attacks.
“It might actually allow the United States to target the militias without worrying about exposing Americans in Iraq to reprisal attacks because the Americans are being moved to bases they can defend,” he said.