- - Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Iraq’s interim prime minister has asked the United States for a plan to withdraw its remaining forces from that country in retaliation to the Soleimani killing. The reaction from the United States has been measured. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s response has been that any U.S. delegation will discuss the right size for U.S. forces in Iraq.

This could range from the present 5,000 to none. That is the correct diplomatic response because it will provide for a cooling off period for tempers on both sides to subside after the killing of a U.S. contractor in Iraq by an Iranian-backed militia and the retaliatory killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a top militia leader by U.S. forces followed by the botched Iranian missile strike on two American bases. Like many people who think about national security issues, I’m of two minds regarding continued U.S. military presence in Iraq.

The argument for staying is that our withdrawal would achieve one of Iran’s key objectives in the region at a time when we are punishing Iran for its bad behavior. The majority of Iraq’s Shiite parliamentarians are the creatures of Iranian-backed political parties and militias, and the session of Parliament that voted to demand for ousting U.S. forces was boycotted by Sunni and Kurd members — because they knew they would be outvoted anyway — claiming that the entire process was an Iranian orchestrated goat rope.

A majority of Iraqi voters stayed away from the 2018 elections because they knew that the outcome was foreordained by corrupt Shiite elites. No Iraqi of any confession that I keep in contact with bothered to vote. Nationalism among Arabs — Sunni and Shia alike — remains strong in Iraq. This is particularly true of the veterans of the Iran-Iraq War who fought hard against Persian domination only to see Shiite opportunists sell their nation out to Iran after the Saddam Hussein regime was toppled in 2003.

In addition, there is the fear of a resurgence of ISIS, particularly in the Sunni Triangle. The Sunnis remain distrustful of their nation’s Shiite-dominated security forces and particularly the Iranian-advised, government-sponsored militias that continue to terrorize the region. Many Sunnis view the American presence as a buffer between jihadist and Shia terror and as a modifying influence on the Iraqi military and police forces that they are advising.

However, there are also cogent arguments in favor of an American withdrawal. Continued U.S. presence against the wishes of the Iraqi government will be portrayed by America’s enemies in the world as an illegal occupation and further evidence of American imperialism. 

The anti-government protesters in Baghdad’s Tahir Square fear that the nation is becoming a battleground between competing foreign interests, and America Firsters among the president’s most fervent supporters oppose all foreign entanglements; this ironically puts them in bed with extreme leftists, such as Bernie Sanders, who reflexively assume that America is wrong in any of its foreign involvements.

While U.S. military presence may help to modify the behavior of the Iraqi security forces, it can also be viewed in some quarters as helping Iran to prop up a corrupt and incompetent regime in Baghdad. There is also a belief that, should ISIS resurge in Iraq, U.S. forces can easily be redeployed from bases elsewhere in the region.

Perhaps the strongest argument for a U.S. withdrawal is the possibility that a coalition of anti-Iran Sunni and Shiite Arabs — which represents the real majority in Iraq — will eventually put together an armed uprising against the Quislings now in power; that is a distinct possibility. The nightmare scenario would be American forces being caught between a legitimate uprising and a despised and corrupt government.

At the present time, Mr. Pompeo’s action in taking a “go slow” approach to the Iraqi withdrawal request is prudent. Iraq’s government is in turmoil. The Tahir protesters cannot be ignored forever. Ayatollah Sistani, the Iranian-born chief Shiite cleric, has sided with the protesters, and the Green Zone political elites may simply decide that they don’t need another crisis. Mr. Pompeo should take the position that an American withdrawal will be contingent on Iranian Quds Force advisers leaving as well. If not, Iran will see an American ejection as a victory.

Whatever happens Iran’s quasi-alliance with the present Iraqi government is becoming as much of an embarrassment to Tehran as the U.S.-Saudi alliance is to us. Iran’s leaders are being insulted and its consulates burned. If I were an Iranian strategist, I’d likely be asking; “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”

• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He has served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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