Attacks on U.S. Troops in Iraq Are Part of Iran’s Strategy

 In Iran, FVEY, Iraq, N11, P5

The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) announced on September 9 that it would for­mal­ly with­draw 2,200 troops in Iraq. The deci­sion will bring the number of troops deployed from 5,200 to 3,000. According to the CENTCOM com­man­der Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie the deci­sion comes due to “the great progress the Iraqi forces have made and in con­sul­ta­tion and coor­di­na­tion with the gov­ern­ment of Iraq and our coali­tion part­ners.”

While the draw­down announce­ment does not sound like some­thing new, the timing could be quite con­sid­er­able. Indeed, the deci­sion comes a few weeks after Iraqi prime min­is­ter Mustafa al-Kadhimi paid a visit in Washington to dis­cuss bilat­er­al secu­ri­ty and eco­nom­ic rela­tions with U.S. pres­i­dent Donald Trump, in the light of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) reduc­tion to dis­band­ed cells. But the announce­ment also fol­lows the U.S.-led coali­tion troops’ depar­ture from Iraqi’s Taji mil­i­tary base on August 23, which marked the eighth mil­i­tary base to be handed over by U.S. troops to the Iraqi mil­i­tary.

The U.S. with­draw­al from Iraq and the han­dover of mil­i­tary bases to the Iraqi troops stem from both domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al rea­sons. At the domes­tic level, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is will­ing to reduce its mil­i­tary foot­print in the Middle East to gain some lever­age within its elec­toral base, due to the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. By doing so, President Trump is likely seek­ing to show that he is “bring­ing troops home” as he also men­tioned during his nom­i­na­tion speech. Otherwise, given that ISIS has been reduced to a few scat­tered cells within Iraqi ter­ri­to­ry, should the U.S. admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ue to keep a large mil­i­tary pres­ence in the coun­try, it may turn out to be polit­i­cal­ly costly for the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. Besides, this under­scores efforts by the admin­is­tra­tion to sup­port al-Kadhimi and his com­mit­ment to restor­ing Iraq’s sov­er­eign­ty.

At the inter­na­tion­al level, the recent surge in attacks against U.S. con­voys and mil­i­tary bases by Iran-aligned mili­tias in Iraq can be not over­looked. The spike in attacks had start­ed in the after­math of the U.S.-drone strike that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces — an Iran-aligned umbrel­la orga­ni­za­tion mainly com­posed by Shia mili­tias that is also offi­cial­ly part of Iraq’s secu­ri­ty forces — at the begin­ning of January 2020.

The attacks grew dra­mat­i­cal­ly over the months, espe­cial­ly between March 11 and August 18, with at least four attacks on con­voys and up to twenty-eight attacks report­ed on bases hous­ing U.S. forces, increas­ing fur­ther to almost daily occur­rences in mid-August. With the spike in attacks steadi­ly rising, sev­er­al mil­i­tant groups emerged to claim respon­si­bil­i­ty: Usbat al-Thairen in March, Ashab al-Kahf in July, and then the Saraya Thawrat Al-Eshreen Al-Thaniya. Regardless of the lia­bil­i­ty — some­times total­ly absent — both the impro­vised explo­sive device (IED) and rock­ets’ attacks have been attrib­uted to Iran-backed mili­tias. This surge in tar­get­ing U.S. inter­ests in Iraq is part of a clear strat­e­gy of Tehran to step up pres­sure on U.S. troops to force them out of the coun­try and take credit for the with­draw­al. Indeed, while fre­quent­ly and direct­ly tar­get­ing U.S. per­son­nel and bases through­out the coun­try, all the attacks rarely injured or killed U.S. sol­diers. This fur­ther high­lights how the main goal is trying to avoid any direct esca­la­tion in vio­lence, while still main­tain­ing an amount of pres­sure to show the door to the United States.

Therefore, while con­sid­er­ably reduc­ing its mil­i­tary foot­print within Iraq, fur­ther attacks against U.S. troops and inter­ests in the coun­try will likely con­tin­ue to take place in the short term. Indeed, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, Washington is “com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing Iraq’s secu­ri­ty forces, includ­ing through the NATO Mission and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, to curb the power of mili­tias.” Even more, con­sid­er that cur­tail­ing mili­tias’ power would also imply to reduce Tehran’s influ­ence within the coun­try.

However, a poten­tial water­shed could be rep­re­sent­ed by the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion next November. If President Trump should not be re-elect­ed, the vic­to­ry of the demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date Joe Biden may lay the ground­work for a change in the U.S.-Iran rela­tions, by also easing ten­sions within Iraq.

Giuseppe Maria De Rosa is a Regional Security Analyst for Le Beck, a geopo­lit­i­cal secu­ri­ty con­sul­tan­cy based in the Middle East.

Image: Reuters.

National Interest source|articles

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