The surgical strike that took out Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani has torpedoed the U.S.-Iraqi relationship, moving Baghdad closer to Tehran and threatening the Trump administration’s strategic position in the region.
In response to the killing of Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport, Iraq’s government is threatening to kick U.S. forces out of the country, a development that would risk Washington losing key gains in the fight against ISIS, its stated mission since returning to Iraq in 2014.
On Sunday, Iraq’s caretaker parliament voted on a nonbinding resolution calling for the removal of U.S. forces and an end to the security and military cooperation on counterterrorism operations and the fight against ISIS. Sunni and Kurdish members of parliament abstained from the vote but did not publicly support the controversial U.S. attack that has thrown the region into upheaval and unpredictability.
The U.S. is unlikely to be forced to leave Iraq in the immediate future given that the caretaker government in Baghdad has no power to pass legislation. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Monday shot down reports that the U.S. was leaving Iraq following confusion over whether American troops would be repositioned in a show of respect for the parliamentary vote.
President Trump, meanwhile, threatened sanctions against Iraq if U.S. troops are forced to leave under any circumstances that aren’t “friendly” or if the American presence is threatened.
“If there’s any hostility, that they do anything we think is inappropriate, we are going to put sanctions on Iraq, very big sanctions on Iraq,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Sunday.
Trump went further, threatening to make Iraq repay the costs of a joint American and Iraqi air base if the U.S. is forced out of the country.
“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there. It cost billions of dollars to build, long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that the “resigned prime minister” is under enormous pressure from Iran and that he is confident Iraqis want the U.S. to stay in the country.
“We are confident that the Iraqi people want the United States to continue to be there to fight the counterterror campaign, and we’ll continue to do all the things we need to do to keep America safe,” Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The State Department had earlier worked to try to prevent the parliamentary vote from taking place, a senior state department official said last week.
The resolution vote could throw into question whether Iraqi forces will continue to ensure the safety of American troops and diplomats in the face of likely Iranian aggression and retaliation.
“The security concerns are very real,” said Blaise Misztal, a fellow with the Hudson Institute and the former head of the congressionally mandated task force on countering extremism in fragile states for the U.S. Institute of Peace.
U.S. troops have suspended anti-ISIS missions and counterterrorism training with Iraqi security forces, and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad ordered all Americans to leave Iraq over the heightened security situation, saying they are at risk for violence and kidnapping.
Misztal said Washington is at a dangerous precipice where it must navigate the divides among the Iraqi people to preserve its position in the region, making sure not to threaten or alienate groups that support an American presence.
“It’s important for the United States to realize that Iraq is a deeply divided both government and society and understand both the opportunities that creates, the pushback against Iran, but also be wary of casting it all in one light, saying this one vote of the Iraqi parliament means that we’re now going to adopt a pressure campaign against Iraq or change our position without an official act of the government,” he said.
The U.S. may also be too late to capitalize on its relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the governing body for the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
The area is one of the most stable territories in the Middle East, with virtually no loss of American lives throughout the Iraq War between 2003 and 2011.
Yet KRG representatives have had to build relationships with Iran over the past two years, capitulating to their neighbor in an act of survival.
In 2017, Iranian-backed Shia militias attacked Kurds in the city of Kirkuk and elsewhere in the region following their vote on a referendum of independence. The U.S. had condemned the vote as provocative toward Baghdad and against the American policy of a “one Iraq.”
“The Kurdish leadership is hesitant to come out in support of Qassem Soleimani’s death, largely because Iran is its neighbor and they do fear targeted attacks inside its territory,” said Diliman Abdulkader, originally from Kirkuk, and co-founder of American Friends of Kurdistan, a Washington-based advocacy organization.
“They’re in a fragile place,” Abdulkader added. “They have spoken to both sides — U.S. Secretary Pompeo, for example — and they have sent letters and have shown up at the [Iranian] Consulate for [mourning] Soleimani’s death just recently.”
Yet the Kurds are invested in keeping the U.S. in Iraq, viewing it as a guarantor of their safety, security and prosperity. The Kurdistan region was created in 1991 with the U.S. implementation of a no-fly zone in response to Saddam Hussein’s campaign of genocide and use of chemical weapons.
“Our neighbors have been responsible for war crimes against Kurdish populations across the region,” Abdulkader said. “We know what they’re capable of.”