Is Washington Serious About Leaving Iraq?

January 31, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: IraqIsraelLebanonU.S. MilitaryIran

Is Washington Serious About Leaving Iraq?

With the country calling for a withdrawal and the region heating up, might the U.S. military presence in Iraq finally come to an end?

So much has been reported on what the United States aims to do in the recent collision of interests between itself and Iraq. Washington’s approval in the region is at an all-time low as it continues to provide Israel with military support in its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, drawing outrage from much of the world. 

Hezbollah from Lebanon has intensified its military strikes on Israel in support of Hamas. Groups aligned with the Gaza-based Palestinian militia are taking potshots at U.S. military targets, including a recent drone strike in Jordan that killed three American soldiers and left over forty injured. 

The U.S. Central Command issued a press release confirming the attack and loss of American service personnel on a U.S. military base, “Tower 22” located in northern Jordan. This strike marked the first death blow America experienced since the start of the Hamas-Israel war on October 7. There have been over 150 attacks on U.S.-stationed positions stretching from Iraq, Syria, and now Jordan. President Joe Biden publicly mourned the loss of the three soldiers and told the American people that the government is committed to fighting terrorism—while declaring, “We will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner of our choosing.”

Some hawks on Capitol Hill are calling for blood by suggesting hitting Iran directly as an appropriate form of retaliation. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in a statement on X that previous U.S. retaliations on Iranian proxies were insufficient and “will not deter Iranian aggression.” He advocated “strik[ing] targets of significance inside Iran.”

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), also Republican, posted on X “Target Tehran” in response to the attack. These remarks come from an emboldened hard-right opposition that wishes to “show strength” while not being in a position to pull the trigger. 

No doubt, Biden is serious about responding militarily against Iranian-supported militants. If anything, he has no choice but to be serious. It’s an election year, and foreign policy in the Middle East could be his Achilles’ heel. It is guaranteed that Washington will use military force but has reiterated it does not want a full-scale war with Iran. Before the attacks in Jordan, the U.S. military launched airstrikes on Iran’s allies in western Iraq on January 23.

Iraq Calls for Withdrawal

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani has called for a “quick and orderly negotiated exit” of U.S-led coalition forces from the country. According to Sudani, the presence of the remaining 2,500 troops is proving to be more trouble than they are worth. He fears their continued placement in Iraq as destabilizing—due to American support for Israel’s military siege of Gaza. Technically, these soldiers are military advisors at the behest of the Baghdad government. Their purpose is to provide training and equipment and coordinate with the Iraqi army. It is within the legal right of the Iraqi state to ask any foreign force to leave—if it so chooses. Yet, the Iraqi leader has not put forward a deadline, and it is not clear if and when he will do so. 

It is inconceivable to suggest that Washington would withdraw at this time after its forces came under fire and sustained casualties, especially in the context of the war in Gaza. Israel and other American partners may feel more vulnerable. Tehran’s leaders can utilize an American withdrawal to acquire a stronger image in front of its followers. Iran’s long-term objective, in any case, is to evict the United States from the region. 

Middle East scholar and professor Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma shared his views on the prospects of an American withdrawal and how Washington may want to consider other options first. 

Landis said, “The Biden administration will try to remain in Iraq with minor alterations to its agreement with the government. Biden will not want to withdraw, certainly not before elections in November.”

The eighty-one-year-old POTUS is struggling to keep his approval rating up—as it is hovering below 40 percent—according to a new Gallup study. If Biden makes any moves that hint at perceived backing down towards Iran, he may find himself in a similar scenario as President Jimmy Carter experienced in November 1979 when Iranian students (inspired by the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini) stormed the American embassy in Tehran—and held fifty-two Americans hostage for 444 days.

It cost Carter the presidency the next year to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan—who appeared as a contrasting image of strength and resolve on the campaign trail. Biden’s political opponent will almost certainly be Donald Trump, who will likewise portray the president as the weaker candidate. The former president can remind the American people that he ordered the assassination of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, in Iraq back in January 2020.

Landis also commented on how Tehran may react if the United States withdraws from Iraq.

“Iran would claim a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as a major victory. Since the start of the Gaza war, Iran focused all its effort to drive the U.S. from Iraq. Iranian-backed strikes on U.S. bases have provoked Washington into assassinating leading Iraqi personalities.”

The killing of Mushtaq Talib Al-Saedi—a senior commander of the Twelfth Brigade of the Iranian-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—on January 4 left Prime Minister Sudani no other alternative than to ask Washington to pack its bags and vacate the area. 

The Biden administration, alongside the United Kingdom, introduced more sanctions against a network of individuals who carry out assassinations of dissidents and opposition figures who operate with the protection of the Iranian government. 

“The Iranian regime’s continued efforts to target dissidents and activists demonstrate the regime’s deep insecurity and attempt to expand Iran’s domestic repression internationally,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Brian E. Nelson. 

He continued by saying, “The United States, alongside our international allies and partners, including the United Kingdom, will continue to combat the Iranian regime’s transnational repression and will utilize all available tools to stop this threat, especially on U.S. soil.”

Will additional sanctions curb or deter Iran’s behavior? Not likely. They will only serve as a tool of annoyance rather than effect any practical repercussions. The most tangible of outcomes will come from Biden’s move to either keep, withdraw, or downsize American forces from Iraq and anywhere else in the Middle East. Tehran is watching and seeing if time is on its side. 

Adnan Nasser is an independent foreign policy analyst and journalist with a focus on Middle Eastern affairs. Follow him on Twitter @Adnansoutlook29.