‘Scare each other’: how the US and Iran are fighting for Baghdad

Two days after the assassination of a general in Baghdad, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.

Source: Reuters

The original article has been published in Gazeta.ru. Translation and editing by Defenseweek’s team.


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The killing by the Americans in Iraq of Iranian General Kassem Suleimani not only raised the threat of war between Iran and the United States, but also created tension in Washington’s relations with Baghdad. On both sides, conflicting information is received daily about the withdrawal of US troops from the country, which Tehran insists on.

How Iraqi Sovereignty Becomes US Error

On January 5, two days after the assassination of a general in Baghdad, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. Parliament also supported a ban on the transfer of foreign forces across Iraq. Baghdad is sure: the incident was a serious attempt on the part of the United States on the sovereignty of the country.

“Despite the external and internal difficulties that we may encounter, this option is fundamentally better for Iraq …

This will help reformat relations with the USA and other states, maintain friendly relations on the basis of respect for sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs, ”said Acting Prime Minister of Iraq Abdel Mahdi.

Soon, the media published an official letter from the head of the US Armed Forces Task Force in Iraq, Brigadier General William Seeley to the Iraqi Joint Operational Command. It reports that US forces will be relocated to “prepare for further movement,” in recognition of Baghdad’s sovereignty.

However, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper immediately denied the information about the forthcoming withdrawal of troops, saying that the letter was just a draft with unsuccessful speech. The head of the United States Joint Staff Committee, Mark Millie called the document a mistake.

A more eloquent reaction followed from US President Donald Trump – if the withdrawal of troops takes place in a not very friendly atmosphere, Washington will impose “sanctions on the Iraqi side that they have never seen before,” he said.

“Compared to this, Iranian sanctions will seem a little boring,” the American leader added.

He also said that US troops would not leave Iraq until Baghdad paid Washington for the constructed airbase.

“We have a very expensive air base there. Its construction cost billions of dollars <…> We won’t leave until they pay us for it, ”the head of the White House emphasized.

On the eve of and. about. Iraqi Prime Minister Adele Abd al-Mahdi demanded that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo send representatives to develop mechanisms for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq. The State Department responded by saying that if it sent a delegation to Baghdad, it would only discuss other issues, for example, to discuss how to deploy its troops.

“At the moment, any delegation that will be sent to Iraq will be busy discussing how to renew our strategic partnership – not by discussing the withdrawal of troops, but how to properly and appropriately deploy our forces in the Middle East,” the State Department said in a statement. “Nevertheless, negotiations between the US and Iraqi authorities need to be held not only about security, but also about financial, economic and diplomatic partnerships.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Washington is ready to continue dialogue with Baghdad on the proper structure of the US military presence in Iraq.

As Dmitry Frolovsky, an independent expert on the Middle East, notes in a conversation with Gazeta.Ru, for Washington, the withdrawal of troops is an extremely undesirable scenario.

“From a formal point of view, the United States must obey the decision of the people of Iraq and withdraw troops. On the other hand, of course, the United States understands that if they withdraw troops from Iraq, they lose that strategic bridgehead to work in Syria, to work in Iran, and, in general, actually lose the opportunity to influence the region. From a formal point of view, they must obey, from a strategic point of view, from the point of view of geopolitics, this is extremely unprofitable for them, ”the expert notes.

In Iraq, 5,000 US troops are now stationed, mainly acting as advisers. US forces have been in Iraq since 2003, when Washington invaded the country and overthrew Saddam Hussein. Formally, the military is now stationed there to resolve internal conflicts.

In this case, according to Frolovsky, the United States may well act in this case as they see fit.

“It all looks rather strange, the Americans have built democracy in Iraq, and now they do not comply with the will of the people,” the expert emphasizes. – Can Americans refuse to withdraw troops? Quite. And it seems to me, given how Trump, as the president of the United States, complies with the existing framework and norms, he can violate this legislation, and the Americans may well remain in Iraq even despite some kind of resolution inside the Iraqi parliament.

At the same time, the United States can put pressure on Iraq, both economic and political. At the same time, everyone understands that in Iraq the Americans are very unpopular.”

At the same time, the potential withdrawal of troops from Iraq is of concern to Europe, which is confident that if the US military leaves the country, the Islamic State terrorist group (IG, banned in the Russian Federation) can strengthen its positions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a joint statement on January 6, urging Baghdad to provide the necessary support for the US-led anti-terror coalition.

Yankee go home

Although the long-term consequences of Suleimani’s death remain difficult to predict, one thing is clear – Iran’s influence on Iraq is enormous. At the same time, as the president of the Institute of the Middle East, Evgeny Satanovsky, notes in a conversation with Gazeta.Ru, at this stage, neither the United States nor Iraq have taken serious action.

“They are still exchanging verbal concussions. Withdrawal of troops is an extremely lengthy procedure. The fact that it was announced does not say anything yet. The same sanctions – have not yet been introduced. Well, a friend’s friend is scared, the expert notes. Iraq has nowhere to take what it takes from Iran. And this Trump knows very well, he has long been explained. Whether President Trump wants it or not, Iraq cannot break off relations with Iran.”

Powerful leverage, for example, is electricity.

In 1991, after the US military operation Desert Storm, the power supply system in Baghdad was severely damaged. The energy industry was further destroyed in 1996 by a missile strike by Washington on Iraq. Then many power plants were disabled or damaged. The industry was also negatively affected by international economic sanctions introduced after Iraq seized neighboring Kuwait in 1990. The situation led to the theft of cables and wires. Power supply was interrupted for a while. In May 2018, parts of Baghdad received electricity for only three hours a day. The ongoing shortage of electricity triggered massive anti-government protests, which continued until 2019.

The Iraqi government turned to Iran for help.

In 2017, Iraqi officials signed a long-term contract for the supply of natural gas with the Iranians. Iran currently accounts for between 30% and 40% of the electricity consumed in Iraq.

The United States really understands how much Baghdad needs a neighbor. For example, the fact that Washington, announcing the withdrawal from the nuclear deal and promising to impose sanctions against all who continue to cooperate with Iran, has repeatedly made an exception for Baghdad. The US administration allowed Iraq to continue purchasing energy from Iran, bypassing its sanctions. Last year and. about. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi categorically stated that “Iraq will not be part of the sanctions regime against Iran.”

At the same time, according to The Hill, a few months before the assassination of Suleymani, the Trump administration put pressure on Baghdad to stop buying gas and electricity from his neighbor. These efforts met with strong resistance from Iraqi officials, who understand that any reduction in supplies could trigger new anti-government protests.

Despite the history of relations between Iran and Iraq, their cooperation in the field of electricity is today one of the most important factors. Baghdad’s dependence has also become another testament to Iran’s authority in the region.

As Dmitry Frolovsky notes, Tehran is quite skillfully using its influence, and not only through leverage.

“Firstly, Iran very skillfully introduces its agents of influence within the structure of Iraq. They have a very effective work at the party level, they work very well at the level of ideology.

Therefore, yes, they still have influence, but in this particular case, it seems to me that the factor influenced that the attitude towards the Americans in Iraq is very negative, and it will most likely remain that way, ”the expert said, noting that Tehran will continue to exert its pressure to Baghdad in this situation. – The part of Iraq that makes decisions, it is somehow controlled or under great influence from Iran. And, accordingly, Iran is beneficial for the United States to leave Iraq. Yes, there will definitely be pressure [from Tehran]. ”

Both experts draw attention to the split within Iraq between religious and national groups, which hold different positions on most key political issues. Moreover, according to Yevgeny Satanovsky, Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis disagree on relations with Iran and the United States. However, Dmitry Frolovsky is sure that anti-Americanism has become the theme that unites most Iraqis. According to the expert, Baghdad will continue to insist on the withdrawal of US troops.

Although US efforts to play a leading role in the post-Saddam state system are largely in ruins, Washington is still involved in fighting Tehran for influence. At the same time, Dmitry Frolovsky points out, there is no reason to talk about the weakening of the US in the entire Middle East region.

“The US will not have a clear weakening in the region, because if we look at the map, the United States has more than 50 thousand people deployed in the region. In terms of military presence, the United States remains quite strong. At the same time, we understand that the USA has a technological advantage, that is, an advantage in everything – hard power – with any other power, including Russia. Washington has it unconditionally, Frolovsky notes. – There is no country that could compensate for its influence. And at the same time you need to understand that the US is somehow hegemonic, they were and are in the Middle East. Moreover, the confrontation with Iran may cause a round of the fact that the US will increase its military presence. ”

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