AMMAN, JORDAN - The United States has rejected a request by the Iraqi government to pull out troops and has threatened possible sanctions in response to the request. U.S. troops are there to train local forces and fight Islamic State militants, says Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Some analysts have dismissed the Trump Administration’s threats as just rhetoric, but it has been reported that possible sanctions are being drafted. Analysts say sanctions against Iraq could wipe out economic progress, however small, made over the past several years. Sanctions also could force Iraq to further align with U.S. rivals, like Iran.
As U.S. troops clear rubble from a military base in western Iraq struck by Iranian missiles, many wonder how tensions will play out between the Iraqi government and the U.S. military following the U.S. killing of top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Mainly Shi'ite lawmakers recently voted to expel U.S. forces from the country and now Iraqi protesters have demanded the same, saying they are tired of being caught between the U.S. and Iran.
Abbas Kadhim, who heads the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Iraq initiative, says the U.S. killing of Soleimani and Iran’s retribution — both on Iraqi soil — undermined its sovereignty.
"The Iraqi government is not interested in kicking out the U.S. troops. More, it’s the pressures on the Iraqi government from Iran, from the friends of Iran who are inside Iraq, mostly armed groups that don’t necessarily obey the orders from the commander in chief of the Iraqi security forces, that’s the prime minister. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi fears that leaving the troops in Iraq puts them in harm’s way, whether an Iranian bombardment or some kind of bombing by the armed groups inside Iraq," he said.
Both Kadhim and Jordanian analyst Osama al-Sharif underscored that it’s not an easy situation to navigate because the U.S. also doesn’t want to leave Iraq. But it may have to in a year.
"Definitely, the United States doesn’t want to leave Iraq as an easy prey for Iran. It will upset the whole geopolitical balance in the region. It will send the Saudis and other Gulf countries looking for options if they cannot rely on the United States as an ally. We’re talking about China, Russia. It’s a big vacuum, if the U.S. is forced to leave," said al-Sharif.
Qadim warns that relations are tenuous, however, and it would be best to negotiate behind closed doors, rather than through the media, to preserve both countries' interests.
"If [the] U.S. leaves and slams Iraq with sanctions and crippling economic measure, then that will kill even the diplomatic relations. That would be a big loss for both countries," he said.
Qadim added that both sides need to buy some time to give both an exit strategy out of the current crisis without having a winner and a loser.