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Behind Iraq’s call to remove US-led forces

Iraq’s prime minister called for an end to US presence after a drone strike killed a senior militia leader.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani stands behind a podium wearing a black suit jacket with a blue tie
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani attends a press conference with Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (not pictured) in Baghdad on December 28, 2023.
Thaier Al-Sudani/AFP via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani announced Friday he will remove about 900 US-led coalition forces from his country, saying that “the justifications for its existence” — the threat of the Islamic State, or ISIS — “have ended.”

Al-Sudani announced that he would put together a “bilateral committee,” which includes members of the coalition forces, charged with ending their presence in the country, Reuters reported Friday. But it’s not clear that al-Sudani and the Iran-linked political blocs crucial to his appointment as prime minister will actually be able to push coalition forces out, though it may succeed in limiting their ability to operate in the country and the wider region.

The announcement came just a day after the US killed Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, also called Abu Taqwa, who the Department of Defense said was a leader of Harakat al-Nujaba (HaN), a Shia militant group associated with Iran and responsible for attacking US installations in Iraq and Syria. Other reporting has identified Abu Taqwa as Mushtaq Taleb al-Saeedi. The Pentagon confirmed the identity of Abu Taqwa as al-Jawari, but did not confirm the identity of a second person killed in the attack, beyond his affiliation with Abu Taqwa and HaN.

Such attacks have occurred in varying tempo and intensity for years now, ramping up again following Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza after the October 7 attacks. Pentagon leadership has maintained that Abu Taqwa was “actively involved in planning and carrying out attacks against American personnel.” But given that Harakat al-Nujaba and groups like it are technically part of the Iraqi military, al-Sudani’s office called Thursday’s strike an “unwarranted attack on an Iraqi security entity that is operating within the powers authorized by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.”

In Iraq, as in the Red Sea, US coalition forces are hamstrung regarding how to respond to attacks like those of Harakat al-Nujaba and the Houthis. Failure to respond has not deterred the attacks, but neither have limited strikes — for example, targeting munitions depots in Syria. But more aggressive attacks, like the one Thursday that killed Abu Taqwa, could have undesirable consequences, such as increased attacks on US installations or on commercial containers in the Red Sea — and risk further escalation in the region overall.

What’s the anti-ISIS coalition still doing in Iraq?

The US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS was formed in 2014 to dislodge ISIS from the territory it controlled in parts of Iraq and Syria. The group imposed an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam over its so-called caliphate, forcing conversions, executing those who opposed them, committing genocide, kidnapping and killing journalists, and executing terror attacks on Western targets.

In March of 2019, a grueling five years later, the coalition managed to largely dismantle the ISIS infrastructure and eject the group from the territory it once held. In October of that year, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a raid by US special operations commandos in Idlib, Syria.

Though the coalition had ostensibly met its goals by that time — dismantling the caliphate, and killing the group’s leader and many commanders — ISIS itself didn’t die. That’s partly because affiliate groups still operate all over the world, including the Philippines, parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, in the Arabian Gulf nations, and in parts of Africa. And it’s also due to the fact that thousands of people associated with ISIS — former fighters as well as their wives and children — have been held at prisons and camps for the displaced and haven’t been repatriated yet.

Furthermore, as US Central Command (CENTCOM) claimed in a 2022 report, ISIS still operated in the region, although at a much lower capability than at the height of its power. The CENTCOM mission, Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve, now “advises, assists, and enables Partner Forces” — such as the Iraqi military and the Syrian Democratic Forces — “to secure lasting defeat of ISIS and to enable the establishment of a security cooperation framework.”

Complicating that mission are the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMFs — mostly Shia militias that are, to varying degrees, affiliated with Iran but technically part of the Iraqi military. Those groups grew significantly and gained power in Iraq in 2014 and were critical to the fight against ISIS, particularly early on in the conflict, as a recent report from the RAND Corporation notes.

“There is a core network of Iranian-controlled groups in Iraq that run these front groups” which are carrying out rocket attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria, according to Phillip Smyth, an independent analyst who focuses on Hezbollah and jihadist groups in the region.

These groups have been launching rocket attacks since about 2020, after the assassination by the US of Qasem Soleimani, a revered leader in the Iranian military, though some occurred as early as 2019. Some of the groups have been around much longer and are trusted allies of the Iranian regime. They’re unlikely to deviate from Iran’s strategy and interests in the region. But other smaller front groups aren’t necessarily quite so closely aligned, Smyth said, and can sometimes mistakenly go off-course or outright flout Iran’s orders.

What’s the potential fallout?

Until late last year, al-Sudani had “publicly defended U.S. troops by stating they were in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government,” Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East Programs at the US Institute for Peace, wrote in early November. The US and Iraq were even on a trajectory to deepen their military cooperation as recently as August.

Al-Sudani has, over the past year, tried to balance competing interests — those of a coalition called the Coordination Framework, which former Iraqi Ambassador to the US Rend al-Rahim described in a piece for the Arab Center as “a motley group of Shia political parties dominated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki” and the PMFs, and aligned with Iran, as well as Kurdish and Sunni interests and those of the US.

Prior to the October 7 attacks, that might have been an easier prospect; attacks on US installations by PMFs and Iran-aligned groups in Syria had ceased for months prior to Israel’s war on Hamas, as part of a de-escalatory trend between Iran and the United States and its partners in the region.

While Iraq has always aligned with Palestinians and declined to recognize Israel, the war — and particularly Thursday’s US strike on Abu Taqwa — has changed the domestic balance for al-Sudani, Jennifer Kavanagh, senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Vox. “For Sudani, the move creates additional domestic pressure for action against US forces,” she said. “I do think the strike on [Abu Taqwa] will at least create a wider and more vigorous and public debate about whether US forces should stay or go. It may not result in US forces being kicked out, but it will likely restrict their freedom of movement and force the US to take a lower profile.”

Indeed, in late October, the powerful Shia Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for the closure of the US embassy in Baghdad due to the US’s “unfettered support” for Israel; that has not yet come to pass, even as tensions between the US and Iraq increase due to the war.

For the US, the harsh Iraqi response — and al-Sudani’s pivot, seemingly due to internal political pressure — is a consequence of crossing a line, Kavanagh said. “In this already tense context, the US strike was a risky and escalatory move. Rather than reducing the threat to US forces in Iraq, I think it increases that threat.” And though it’s not yet clear whether al-Sudani’s threat will materialize, “if there are any additional US strikes, I think the effort to expel US forces could have enough momentum to be successful.”

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