BAGHDAD–Political statement and responses to the meeting of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi with President Joe Biden in Washington revealed the contours of a US-Iraqi-Iranian tripartite deal that would allow the US to extend the presence of its forces in Iraq under the banner of a non-combat mission.
Iran apparently persuaded Iraqi militias to agree to this formula, in a move that gives support and cover to Kadhimi, in power for little over a year and under pressure from Iran-allied political factions to push US troops from his country.
The announcement of the deal, experts say, would also help Kadhimi complete the transitional period, leading to the October elections, which may bring him back to power with American promises of support and assistance, including by reassuring him about the fate of Iraqi funds deposited in American banks.
During the meeting with the Iraqi premier, Biden was holding a piece of paper, possibly intentionally for photographers to capture. That piece of paper revealed Iran’s role in the deal, as it carried two sentences in English, one of which reads: “Iran considering [with] holding back attacks” launched by Shia militias on US interests and forces in Iraq, while the second sentence reads: “US prepares to respond to attacks.”
The second sentence radically contradicts the substance of the deal reached during the Iraqi premier’s visit to Washington, regarding the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq and the focus on training, advising and supporting Iraqi forces.
Iraqi sources, who spoke to The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity, said the US has finally succeeded in obtaining an Iraqi approval to keep its forces in Iraq and get round the Iran-aligned militias’ explicit and unequivocal rejection of any foreign military presence.
Several powerful pro-Iran groups in Iraq Tuesday welcomed Washington’s announcement that did not actually do what they were demanding, which is the departure of the last American soldier from Itaqi soil.
The Conquest Alliance, the political wing of Iraq’s Hashed-al-Shaabi paramilitary network, which is dominated by pro-Iran groups, said it considered Biden’s announcement “to be a positive step towards the full sovereignty of Iraq.”
“We hope that it will materialise on the ground,” it added.
Several other pro-Iran groups in Iraq also reacted positively.
The Imam Ali Brigades lauded “the end of the foreign presence” and said it “thanked the (Iraqi) government for keeping its promises,” while influential Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr also welcomed Biden’s announcement.
US troops were invited into Iraq in 2014, three years after ending an eight-year occupation that began with the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, by a government desperate to halt a sweeping advance by the Islamic State (ISIS) group.
Iraq’s government declared ISIS defeated in late 2017, but the Sunni extremists retain sleeper cells and still launch periodic suicide attacks.
The US and Iran are both major allies of Iraq and share an enmity towards ISIS. However, Tehran also considers Washington its arch foe and has long pressed for a withdrawal of US troops from its neighbour.
Pro-Iran armed factions stand accused of carrying out around 50 rocket and drone attacks this year against US interests in Iraq.
Since last year, the principal role of the remaining US troops, now totalling 2,500, after drawdowns under Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, had already been to train, advise and support the Iraqi military in its fight against ISIS.
Biden’s announcement therefore indicated little major change of policy.
Iraqi researcher and political analyst Hamid al-Kafaei considered that the formula of the US-Iraqi deal indicates that the aim is to reassure pro-Iran factions.
In a statement to The Arab Weekly, Kafaei questioned the phrasing of the deal, which reads “ending the combat mission of the American forces,” explaining that “except for the air cover provided by the international coalition to Iraq during the war on ISIS, there were no US combat operations against terrorist groups on the ground. The US and international intervention has been limited to training, advice, and intelligence.”
Though several Iraqi Shia militias welcomed the US-Iraqi deal, others voiced their rejection, with Nasr al-Shammari, the deputy secretary-general of Harakat al-Nujaba, one of the most extreme factions of the Hashed-al-Shaabi, saying in a television interview that he totally rejects any presence of US troops in Iraq.
The Americans are changing the title of their presence in Iraq to deceive public opinion, Shammari said, adding, “What benefit is there to changing the title of the ‘occupier’ to ‘advisor’? American troops are on Iraqi soil, what difference does it make under what name and under what pretext this military presence is?”
Shammari also threatened to “continue targeting US forces in Iraq even after reaching the deal.”