- - Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is trying to clean up the country and reduce the baleful influence of Iran on its sovereignty.

He is attempting to demobilize the armed Shiite militias and return the parties that sponsor them to purely political status. The United States needs to support him. One of the best tools that we have with which to do that is to make the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces contingent upon the withdrawal of all Iranian military elements.

The commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees Iraq, recently made a cogent argument for keeping U.S. forces in the country as a hedge against Iran. As late as 2018, his logic would have made good strategic sense, but the strategic landscape has changed for several reasons.

First, Iraq is no longer a vital U.S. interest. Our country is now energy self-sufficient and the strategic rationale for keeping forces on the ground there diminished with the defeat of ISIS. If Mr. Kadhimi is successful in bringing about reforms which would lessen the Sunni grievances that allowed ISIS to surge in 2014, it will lessen the chances of another Sunni insurgency.

Second, Iran remains a threat, but our primary interest is in keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear power. However, the Israelis appear to be doing a good job of that by covertly sabotaging Iran’s nuclear facilities. In addition, Iran’s military ineptitude has been on display starkly in 2020. From shooting down a civilian airliner to mistakenly sinking one of its own warships, the folly of creating a military that also acts as an internal security force as Iran has done with its Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been laid bare. Such forces inevitably become militarily problematical.

Finally, the troops that America has in Iraq are not configured to repel a conventional Iranian invasion. There are better ways to deter an attack on Iraq.

The real threat to the sovereignty of Iraq is Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which have played a key role in suppressing legitimate dissent and in repressing the nation’s Sunni minority in the guise of guarding against an ISIS resurgence. Mr. Kadhimi is valiantly trying to control and disarm these militias, but they are de facto arms of the IRGC’s Quds force, which effectively equips and leads them.

Iran argues that the Quds force is a counterweight to American presence. This would give Mr. Kadhimi the political leverage to demand that all foreign military forces leave the country should he ever decide that he has sufficient backing from Iraq’s legitimate security forces to do so.

Before Saddam Hussein hijacked the Baathist Party in the 1970s, Iraq was the economic superstar of the region. It was the most highly educated nation in the Middle East and had the best electrical grid and medical infrastructure. Saddam’s wars against Iran and the United States and the chaos that followed his elimination has damaged that badly, but the potential is still there. We can help, but military presence is not the answer. Most Iraqis — Sunni and Shiite alike — just want to be left alone, and foreign military presence in any form is generally unwelcome.

The best solution for maintaining regional security and rebuilding Iraq would be a bilateral defense agreement between the United States and Iraq that would ensure the United States would support Baghdad in the event of any foreign invasion. The difference between that agreement and the ones we have with South Korea and Japan is that we would not have permanent troops on Iraqi soil.

Prepositioned ground and air combat equipment could be emplaced in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Maintained and guarded by contract personnel, this capability would serve two purposes. First, it would deter Iran. Second, it would keep Turkey honest. We have ties to the Kurds and the Turks, but they hate each other. Such an agreement would help keep Kurdistan in the Iraqi fold because a Kurdish declaration of independence would cross a Turkish line in the sand.

President Trump wants to get American troops out of war zones, but Iraq is no longer a real war zone. By using the small residual U.S. military presence in Iraq as bargaining chips to force out Iranian troops, Mr. Trump would please his base as well as other Americans who believe that the constant threat to use force alone is poor strategy. Mr. Trump likes to negotiate, and he has promised to protect American interests without getting into unnecessary wars. Good strategy entails achieving objectives at the lowest possible cost.

• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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