Withdrawal Symptoms

Reflecting on Coalition Redeployments from Iraq

by Sofia Barbarani

When the American-led coalition announced its imminent relocation of personnel and equipment in Iraq on 20 March, they did so with a surprising degree of optimism. The statement, issued by Lieutenant General Pat White, coincided with the first anniversary of the Battle of Baghouz in which ISIS lost its last sliver of territory. “Due to the tremendous sacrifice, strength, and success of the Iraqi Security Forces … we have reached a point in the campaign where our partners are taking the fight to the remnants of Daesh independently and preventing Daesh’s resurgence,” White said.

 

The alleged motives behind the move, however, have been met with skepticism and Iraq observers cite the attacks by Iran-backed militias on US personnel as the true reason for the redeployment. Tensions between Washington and Tehran increased in December 2019 when a militia rocket killed an American contractor and spiked in January following the US targeted assassination of Iranian Al Quds Force Major General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al Muhandis. The assassination of the two men paved the way for a series of deadly missile attacks on Iraqi bases hosting coalition troops as well as US retaliatory strikes.

 

Over the past week the coalition has repeatedly referred to the reshuffling of troops as a “long-planned” event, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the recent militia attacks. However, reports of large-scale relocation efforts only surfaced three weeks ago. According to Iraqi analyst Mustafa Habib, US forces did not have advanced plans in place to withdraw from these bases. The sense of urgency was further compounded by the coalition’s rapid handover of the bases to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), with as many as five compounds evacuated in less than three weeks. The latest took place on Tuesday 7 April, when French coalition troops handed over Abu Ghraib base, just west of Baghdad, to the Iraqi Security Forces.

 

Most of the troops that left one of the five bases are set to return to their home countries, while heightened security measures are in place for those remaining. And, “In order to keep the troops safe, commanders adjust force protection levels including rules for the wear of personal protection equipment, guidelines for outdoor fitness and morale activities, and other measures to harden our defense posture,” coalition spokesman Colonel Myles B. Caggins III said.

 

Threat levels fluctuate and military personnel must adapt accordingly. Last week, members of the coalition were instructed to wear protective body armour on a 24-hour basis when outdoors, while this week the order comes into effect only at nighttime. In Baghdad, Sarkawt Shams (member of Iraq’s parliament) says the US-Iran tensions remain high, and they are being played out inside Iraq: “It may escalate further as both sides are prepared to defend themselves and launch destructive attacks on each other’s targets.” Troop redeployment, added Shams, “is a precaution against more militia attacks.”

 

Who wants America gone?

 

The US has never been without a long list of enemies in Iraq, with bloody battles against rogue militias dating back to the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. But amid a myriad of armed groups, Kataib Hezbollah (KH) is often considered enemy number one.

 

A member of the official military umbrella of the Hashed al-Shaabi, KH is Iran’s prime ally in Iraq. The group’s network extends through the region from Lebanon, into Syria and Iraq, all the way to Iran and is thought to have the ability to target not just US assets, but Israel and Saud Arabia as well. The killing of KH commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, just three months ago has further emboldened the militia against US troops.

 

Last week’s footage of a drone hovering over the US Embassy in Baghdad was posted online by the Usbat al-Thaireen group, warning that: “The embassy is at the mercy of our missiles.” This new-formed militia, however, is thought to be a mere front for KH, making it harder for the Trump administration to identify, with certainty, its enemy. This has not deterred the White House from issuing repeated threats against these nefarious groups, with Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, often spearheading the battle. In late March the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon had ordered military commanders to prepare to “destroy” KH. The armed group responded: we are ready to fight back.

 

But groups like KH, whose tentacles transcend brute armed force and reach into the country’s political elite, cannot be destroyed through missile attacks alone. Anti-American militias, including Asaib ahl al-Haq and its offshoot al-Nujaba have used Iranian support to force their way into Iraq’s destitute corners of society, military ranks and government. On 04 April Asaib ahl al-Haq and al-Nujaba along with six other members of the Hashed al-Shaabi issued a statement in which they threatened action against American forces if they did not fully withdraw from Iraq. In the statement, the groups also targeted pro-American prime minister-designate Adan al-Zurfi. Al-Nujaba followed the statement by posting a drawing of coffins covered by American flags and the caption ‘Your end is close’ on Telegram.

 

As threats and relatively small-scale missile attacks show no sign of abating, some Iraq observers believe that a common enemy might not be enough to maintain unity among rival militias. The killing of  Soleimani and Muhandis could be the undoing of the militias’ united front, as the groups scramble to recreate a sense of normalcy and distribute resources. 

 

The killing of more than 500 protestors over the course of Iraq’s five-month uprising is just one of the more recent rifts to appear between some groups. A number of unidentified militias have been accused of killing civilians, while others have taken to the streets to defend the demonstrators.  

 

The threat of an ISIS resurgence further exacerbates an already fragile security situation. On 7 April ISIS carried out two different attacks on a Peshmerga base and a federal police checkpoint in northern Iraq, killing two Kurdish troops. According to a local journalist on the ground, the withdrawal of coalition troops and the Covid-19 health crisis are paving the way for ISIS to regroup and resume their attacks.

 

Where do We go From Here?

 

Today, a tit-for-tat rhetorical battle between the US and Iran is taking place against the worrying backdrop of the redeployment of coalition troops. In a Tweet on Wednesday, President Trump said: “Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!”

 

In response, Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, called President Trump a warmonger and said that Iran had friends, not proxies. But leaders taking to Twitter to wage keyboard battles is only likely to exacerbate an already delicate situation. And the US, it seems, is unwilling to take chances. Not long after the relocation of the first batch of troops, Central Command confirmed that the US would be moving defensive systems into Iraq, including C-RAMS and Patriot missile batteries. The move, said Captain Bill Urban of Centcom, aims “to protect Iraqi, coalition, and US service members from a variety of air threats seen at Iraqi bases that host coalition troops.”

 

Although the coalition feels comfortable enough in its success against ISIS to begin withdrawing and relocating large numbers of troops, the remnants of a four-year battle against the terrorist group are still there. This includes the emboldened and powerful Iran-backed Shia militias that contributed to the downfall of ISIS, but which now run rampant, targeting not only Iraqi military personnel, but Iraqi civilians too.

08 April 2020

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