Iraq analysts say the nonbinding vote is important but removal of U.S. troops is far from a done deal.
Iraq’s Parliament requested the government expel all U.S. troops from Iraq, voting unanimously to pass the nonbinding resolution just days after President Donald Trump ordered airstrikes that killed Iran’s Qassem Soleimani and deputy militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad.
Iraq’s caretaker prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi recommended that a timeline be developed to remove foreign troops “for the sake of our national sovereignty," in an address to the legislature prior to Sunday’s vote.
The resolution does not have the force of law — actually kicking U.S. troops out would require another piece of binding legislation and one-year notice to Washington — but it lays bare the deep strains on the relationship and the fragile position of the American military in Iraq.
For the better part of a year, the Parliament has debated a measure to eject the roughly 5,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, who are there at the invitation of the government. Powerful nationalistic political figures and Iran-aligned lawmakers have kept the divisive issue alive. Trump invited fire from across the spectrum when he said that U.S. troops were there to “watch” Iran — a remark seen in Iraq as an affront to its sovereignty. In recent months, nationlistic street protests have taken broad aim at Mahdi’s government and foreign interference in Iraq.
Until now, Trump administration officials have been able to persuade Iraqi lawmakers not to take the vote on troop presence, in part because even Iran-aligned elements of Iraqi’s governing class recognize the value that American troops and resources bring to the fight against ISIS.
“We are confident that the Iraqi people want the United States to continue to be there to fight the counterterror campaign,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
Sunday’s vote is the furthest step that the Iraqi parliament has taken towards actually forcing the removal of U.S. troops. Soleimani’s killing sparked frustration and outrage even among Iraqi political leaders who might benefit from Soleimani’s death, like the powerful Iraqi nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
“I call upon all Iraqi factions and factions abroad to form an International Resistance against the United States,” Sadr said in a Sunday statement.
Muhandis was “an absolutely beloved figure… Think Eisenhower’s status after 1945,” said Iraq analyst Kirk Sowell.
Iraqi political analysts caution that the removal of U.S. troops is far from a done deal. Mahdi is slated to step down as soon as a replacement can be decided upon, and so has limited power.
Even if the Parliament chooses to move forward, there are several other legislative steps that must be taken — a process that can take up to a year, according to U.S.-Iraqi agreements governing the U.S. troop presence. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear that the current government, under an acting prime minister, has the constitutional authority to undo the executive agreement that allowed the U.S. troops in the first place.
“This is the beginning of a multi-sided negotiation—not the end of it,” said Thomas Warrick, a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council.
Despite obvious frustration with the United States, according to some analysts there are also reasons to think that the unanimous vote tally is less emphatic than it appears. Many of the Parliament’s 328 members — primarily Kurds and Sunnis — did not attend the session and did not vote. Shiite lawmakers who did attend had an incentive to notch a show vote against the U.S. presence, said Kirsten Fontenrose, a former senior Middle East policy official in Trump’s National Security Council.
“The vote reflects the mood of Iraqi leadership, but it should be noted that in an open vote like this, any Shia legislator who voted to keep the United States in Iraq would be placing themselves in mortal danger,” Fontenrose said. “A secret vote might have yielded a different outcome.”
Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute who specializes in the military and security affairs of Iraq, posited before the vote that Iraq’s interest in keeping U.S. troops and money there to fight ISIS would outweigh domestic political considerations.
“It’s not going to make very good news media, but ultimately they’ll muddle through,” Knights said. They’ll talk a good game. They’ll put together a draft in Parliament... [But] there’s so many ways to delay a piece of law in Iraq that I have a feeling we’ll get away with this.”
Other analysts see the threat to the U.S. presence as far more dire. For still others, it’s an opportunity for Trump to fulfill his promise to bring home American troops from the Middle East — particularly now, when they are at risk. The State Department on Friday issued a warning to all Americans to leave the country.
“Sooner or later, Iraqis need to solve their own problems,” said Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a libertarian-leaning think tank which advocates against military interventions. “They know that, and most Americans agree.”
Trump and his allies have sought to frame Iraq’s response to the strikes as a choice between Tehran and Washington, but the situation is not so black-and-white for Iraqis. Both Iran and the United States have been involved in the formation of Iraqi governments since the 2001 invasion under President George W. Bush. Iraq and Iran share a border, a Shiite majority and a common enemy in ISIS. Iranian-backed militias were key players in keeping Erbil and Baghdad out of ISIS’s hands, and with U.S. blessing Iraqi military leaders have sought to fold those groups into the national government’s formal security architecture.
What is perhaps most likely, Knights and other analysts say, is that the U.S. presence and mission in Iraq will become far more constrained. The U.S.-led coalition has already “paused” its training mission because of "repeated rocket attacks over the last two months.”
"This has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against [ISIS]," the coalition said in a statement issued just prior to the vote. "We have therefore paused these activities."
“The main ramification in Iraq is that it could make the U.S. training program there untenable,” Iraq analyst Kirk Sowell said of the U.S. strikes the night before the vote. Key U.S.-friendly pols — like Mahdi and Iraqi President Barham Salih — ”are going through major domestic problems right now,” he said, and might not be in a position to advocate for U.S. interests even if they wanted to.
“The devil is in the details,” said Anthony Pfaff, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative. “The Iraqi government has frequently made the distinction between U.S. forces engaged in combat operations, advisers, and those affiliated with security cooperation and foreign military sales.
“After the initial outrage subsides, it will be interesting to see if any of those are left.”