President Trump’s decision to withdraw additional troops from Iraq risks expanding Iran’s influence in Baghdad by undercutting the prime minister’s efforts to counter Tehran’s proxy fighters.
“Iran and its militias are going to be the primary beneficiaries of any prompt drawdown or withdrawal,” the Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior analyst Behnam Ben Taleblu said. “It puts pressure on those who Washington will be predisposed to work with to begin to hedge closer towards Iran.”
Iraq is one of the key theaters of American efforts to counter Iran’s aggression in the Middle East — the scene of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s death in a U.S airstrike in January. Yet Trump has ordered two successive cuts to troop levels in Iraq, as newly appointed acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller announced that 500 Americans will leave the country by Jan. 15, a decision taken just weeks after a plan to withdraw 2,200 troops in September.
“With the blessings of providence in the coming year, we will finish this generational war and bring our men and women home,” Miller said this week. “We will protect our children from the heavy burden and toll of perpetual war. And we will honor the sacrifices made in service to peace and stability in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world, and celebrate all those who helped us secure freedom over oppression.”
That statement neglects the reality of Iraq’s significance to Iran, as well as the situation confronting transitional Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi. A former dissident against Saddam Hussein’s regime who obtained British citizenship while living in exile, Kadhimi is widely regarded as a pro-American leader.
Yet Iran’s inroads into Iraqi military and political power centers require him to “dance on a daily basis with the snakes, but I am looking for a flute to control them,” as he put it last month, and Trump’s rapid reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq seems to embolden the snakes.
“It’s a bad move,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin said. “He’s snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq, betraying our allies both Arab and European, and allowing a petulant temper tantrum to trump any consideration of national security.”
Kadhimi’s vulnerability was apparent in June, when he arrested 14 people in a raid on Kata’ib Hezbollah, the Iranian-controlled militia that has fired rockets at American troops. “The militia marched on his residence and got to within perhaps 450 feet,” Rubin wrote in the National Interest. “Neither the embassy nor Kadhimi’s friends in Washington lifted a finger in that time of crisis.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo subsequently threatened to close the U.S. Embassy in Iraq over the persistent attacks. Kadhimi’s team maintains that they are attempting to curtail those provocations while warning against the consequences of an American departure.
“The consequences of a U.S. withdrawal, if it would happen, would be catastrophic for Iraq, especially as it would result in an economic crisis that has never been seen before,” Kadhimi said in October.
The Iran-controlled militias, for their part, claim the right to target Americans based on a nonbinding resolution passed by the Iraqi Parliament after the Soleimani strike, which also killed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis — the Kata’ib Hezbollah co-founder and leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a network of Iran-controlled militias that was integrated into the Iraqi military during the fight against the Islamic State.
Miller’s plan would leave 2,500 troops in Iraq after Jan. 15, so the drawdown isn’t a total departure — a key caveat for some analysts. “If U.S. troops withdraw completely, it would increase the risks of an ISIS comeback, but a partial withdrawal would not necessarily do so,” the Heritage Foundation’s Jim Phillips said. “A total withdrawal also is likely to weaken Prime Minister al Kadhimi’s leverage over Iran-backed Iraqi militias, which would benefit Iran. But a partial withdrawal would not undercut him as much and might reduce the number of American targets that Iran can hit.”
In any case, the Soleimani-Muhandis partnership in death is suggestive of Iran’s plans to turn Iraq into another Lebanon — a country dominated by Iran, due to the emergence of a proxy fighting force that gradually gets absorbed into the legitimate political scene.
“It’s called the Hezbollah model,” Ben Taleblu said, adding that Iran has been pursuing this goal for decades. “The export of the revolution begins at [Iran’s] border. Iran is forever predisposed to intervene in Iraq’s politics.”