It was December 30, just before Iraqi demonstrators stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone to protest U.S. airstrikes against five Iraqi militia bases that killed more than two dozen militia members, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded of Iraq’s president and prime minister that their government “guarantee the safety and security of U.S. personnel and property.”
“The secretary made clear the United States will protect and defend its people,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said about her boss’s phone calls, stressing that U.S. personnel were “there to support a sovereign and independent Iraq.” That claim appeared doubtful at the time, given that Washington had conducted its airstrikes without consulting Iraqi authorities in advance, despite the fact that the targeted militia is officially part of the Iraqi armed forces.
The same claim appeared altogether risible four days later, when a U.S. Predator drone struck and killed Iranian Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, along with the deputy chairman of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (also officially a part of the Iraqi military), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as the two men were leaving the Baghdad International Airport. The attack was carried out without prior consultation with — let alone approval by — Iraqi officials.
A “Sovereign and Independent” Iraq?
Pompeo’s assertion that thousands of U.S. troops, diplomats, spies, and contractors currently deployed to Iraq are there to support a “sovereign and independent Iraq” has taken several more hits since then. The Soleimani killing triggered a quick response from the Iraqi parliament, which on January 5 passed a resolution calling for all foreign military forces to leave the country. The wording might have been universal, but the specific target — the United States — was unmistakable.
The practical effect of parliament’s vote was negligible. Not only was the resolution non-binding, but most of Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni Arab MPs boycotted the vote, leaving the legitimacy of the outcome in question. Questions swirled as to whether Abdul-Mahdi had the authority to order U.S. forces out of the country. Legally the U.S. is deployed in Iraq under a fairly informal invitation from the Iraqi government, and an Iraqi prime minister could rescind that invitation. But Abdul-Mahdi — who tendered his resignation in November amid waves of public protest — is at the moment only an interim prime minister and may lack the power to take such a step.
But even at this point it started to become clear that the Trump administration had no intention of respecting the wishes of the Iraqi government. Pompeo, for example, told CBS news that the administration was “prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve and continue our mission there to take down terrorism,” and told Fox News that “we are confident that the Iraqi people want the United States to continue to be there.” It’s unclear how Pompeo came to possess that information, but clearly if what the Iraqi people wanted was for the U.S. military to leave their country then the administration was not prepared to help them get that.
Pompeo’s boss went even farther. Speaking to reporters on January 6, Donald Trump threatened to punish Iraq with “very big sanctions” if Baghdad moved ahead with any effort to expel U.S. forces. Trump directed most of his anger toward the Ayn al-Asad airbase in Iraq’s Anbar province, which the Pentagon rebuilt after the 2003 U.S. invasion, suggesting he might force the Iraqi government to reimburse the U.S. for that expense.
To Withdraw or Not to Withdraw
What happened next was both a revealing glimpse into the dysfunction of the Trump administration and a comedy of errors. With Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi reportedly wavering a bit on his previous support for removing U.S. forces from the country, the Pentagon sent a letter to his government on January 6 announcing a plan to begin redeploying its forces within Iraq “for onward movement…out of Iraq.” Defense Department officials hurriedly told reporters that there were no plans for a U.S. withdrawal and that the letter was merely an unsigned “draft” that was intended merely for internal discussion and had been forwarded on to Baghdad by mistake.
But Abdul-Mahdi poured cold water on that claim, telling Iraqi cabinet ministers the following day that he’d received an “official” copy of the letter and that his office had even sent it back to the Pentagon to ask for clarification because of a translation discrepancy between its English and Arabic language versions. It is unclear whether the Pentagon is in the habit of translating draft letters into Arabic for internal circulation, but as far as the Iraqi government was concerned the letter was legitimate.
Iran’s retaliation for the Soleimani strike, which took the form of a missile attack against two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. forces early in the morning of January 8, briefly shifted attention away from the letter incident. But Abdul-Mahdi revived it in a phone conversation with Pompeo on Thursday evening, asking the secretary to send a team to Iraq in order to “lay down the mechanisms for implementing” a U.S. withdrawal. On Friday, Pompeo’s State Department replied in very blunt terms that the U.S. would simply not oblige:
“America is a force for good in the Middle East. Our military presence in Iraq is to continue the fight against ISIS and as the Secretary has said, we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis, and our coalition partners. We have been unambiguous regarding how crucial our D-ISIS mission is in Iraq. At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership—not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our right, appropriate force posture in the Middle East. Today, a NATO delegation is at the State Department to discuss increasing NATO’s role in Iraq, in line with the President’s desire for burden sharing in all of our collective defense efforts. There does, however, need to be a conversation between the U.S. and Iraqi governments not just regarding security, but about our financial, economic, and diplomatic partnership. We want to be a friend and partner to a sovereign, prosperous, and stable Iraq.”
If Pompeo’s blunt rejection of the idea that the Iraqi government is entitled to decide whether or not U.S. forces should leave its territory raises new questions about Washington’s commitment to a “sovereign and independent” Iraq, the latest news tends to suggest quite the opposite. Reviving Trump’s sanctions threat, the administration seems to have embarked on a new “maximum pressure” campaign targeted precisely at Iraq, perhaps even at its territorial integrity.
“The Trump administration warned Iraq this week that it risks losing access to a critical government bank account if Baghdad kicks out American forces following the U.S. airstrike that killed a top Iranian general, according to Iraqi officials,” the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday:
“The State Department warned that the U.S. could shut down Iraq’s access to the country’s central bank account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a move that could jolt Iraq’s already shaky economy, the officials said.
“Iraq, like other countries, maintains government accounts at the New York Fed as an important part of managing the country’s finances, including revenue from oil sales. Loss of access to the accounts could restrict Iraq’s use of that revenue, creating a cash crunch in Iraq’s financial system and constricting a critical lubricant for the economy.”
Needless to say, such a “cash crunch” at a time when there is already clearly popular discontent over country’s economic and political dysfunction could further destabilize Iraq, thus opening new opportunities for ISIS to reconstitute itself and wreak havoc across the country – despite Washington’s insistence that its “military presence” in the country is “solely aimed at continuing the fight against ISIS.”
Ironically, those last words were taken from a communique posted by the State Department Saturday morning regarding a two-day trip by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker to two destinations: Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he met with various Kurdish political leaders; and Abu Dhabi, where he met with the UAE minister of state, Anwar Gargash, and Iraqi Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, Iraq’s highest-ranking Sunni politician. Halbousi had been singled out for praise by Pompeo for condemning the siege of the U.S. embassy, although he later also condemned the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis.
Aside from the fact that Schenker avoided Baghdad, as well as the president and prime minister of Iraq, perhaps the most ominous sign of the Trump administration’s intentions came at the end of the communique in which Schenker is reported to have “thanked the Iraqi, Kurdish, and Emirati people for their support and enduring friendship.”
The wording was strange, to say the least. After all, Iraqi Kurds living in Iraq are Iraqis, so why make the distinction between “Iraqi” and “Kurdish” peoples – a rather sensitive issue in Iraq, as well as in Iran, Syria, and Turkey?
After the U.S. invasion in 2003 the possibility of partitioning Iraq was openly discussed, especially in Washington, DC. Was the State Department hinting that the administration intended to move all of its military forces to Iraqi Kurdistan? Signs from Iraqi Kurdish leaders suggest they would be unenthusiastic about such a redeployment unless it came with some strings attached, presumably related to Kurdish independence. Was the administration suggesting that partition is back on the table? Is this what Pompeo was referring to when he insisted that all U.S. personnel in the country are dedicated to supporting a “sovereign and independent Iraq”?
It’s worth recalling in this regard that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the only world leader – and Israel the only country – to publicly promote the creation of an independent Kurdish state in the run-up to Kurdistan’s 2017 referendum on seceding from Iraq. Nor was this a new Israeli ambition; dating back to the 1960’s, Israel has supported a number of Kurdish insurgencies in the region.
Of course, in the last three years, Trump has increasingly aligned Washington’s Middle East policies with Netanyahu. He’s slashed aid to the Palestinians, moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. He’s withdrawn from and systematically violated the nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA), declared the IRGC a terrorist organization, assassinated Soleimani, and pursued his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Do his latest moves to bully and threaten (possibly with support for partition) Iraq constitute a new “maximum pressure” campaign and an even greater alignment with the Israeli Right?