Newly elected Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed al-Sudani, recently spoke out in an interview expressing support for U.S. military presence and training in Iraq. This statement holds both disillusion and relief for the United States, due to a history of tension between the two countries.
Although tensions date as far back as 1953, recent implications with Iraq directly involve its neighboring country, Iran. In 2018, former President Trump tightened economic sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports after U.S. withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal created in a former presidency. Six U.S. oil tankers were struck in 2019, and accusations were directed at Iran. On January 3rd of 2020, U.S. military operations led to a drone strike and killing of Iran’s top military commander Qasem Soleimani, as well as Iraq’s militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Iran retaliated with a missile attack on U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.
Iranian forces have infiltrated many areas of Iraq—Iraq’s Muhandis being a commander of Iranian backed militia groups and leader of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF)— and these forces hold control over most of the Iraqi economy. When the Iraqi Parliament held a vote to expel U.S. forces from its territory after the missile attack, members of the council were seen taking phone calls and receiving texts from Hezbollah (a Shia Islamist political party and militant group) members threatening and bribing them to vote in favor. Thousands of U.S. troops were removed soon after.
There remains a question of how much U.S. support Iraq truly wants in its counter-terrorism operatives, as Iraqi leaders’ precedence of private praise and public shame of foreign troops holds strong.
Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani, during his interview this past month, stated that he wanted the current 2,000 U.S. forces in Iraq to continue training his Iraqi troops to fight the Islamic State and counter the militia hegemony. Sudani began using counterterrorism methods to halt currency smuggling into Iran, as a result of the New York Federal Reserve placing tighter controls on commercial Iraqi banks, where most illegal transactions into Iran occur. Each action of Sudani’s is a seeming attempt to please the U.S. and regain support. Furthering this counter-terrorism mission will most likely ensure a better trade economy for Iraq as well as foreign aid in the future.
In July 2022, President Biden met with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council and three additional Middle East country representatives (GCC+3)— Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Republic of Egypt, the Republic of Iraq, and the Kingdom of Jordan—to discuss global challenges and reiterate an emphasis on strengthening security. Biden stated that the Middle East is essential to the “long-term security and prosperity of the United States and the American people”.
Of the five declaratory principles in Biden’s address to the GCC+3, Partnerships and Integration align most with the current situation in Iraq. Biden’s Partnerships principle explains that the U.S. will “support and strengthen partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order”, while his Integration principle follows that the U.S. “will build political, economic, and security connections” between its partners as much as possible.
Additionally, the U.S. has pledged to deter threats to regional security and “reduce tensions, de-escalate, and end conflicts wherever possible through diplomacy”.
Iraq benefits highly from a relationship with the United States, and the U.S., in return, gains a valuable trade source and strengthened national security. Similar to the gains the U.S. draws from having Ukraine as an ally and buffer against Russia, having allyship with Iraq creates a natural protection for the U.S. against the spread of Iranian influences in the Middle East.
Furthermore, an American presence in Iraq decreases overall risk of terrorism, both in the US and in Iraq. The UN estimates that “the Islamic State still has up to $300 million in reserves to sustain its terrorist campaign, and Kurdish officials note that the group is now reorganized underground in Iraq” with better tactics. The 2020 withdrawal of many U.S. troops may have direct correlation with the jump in terrorist incidents between 2020 and 2021. Iraq had a count of 629 terrorist-related incidents in 2020, while in 2021, after significant amounts of U.S. troops had been removed, Iraq had 833 incidents. As Sudani supports the continuation of U.S. military training and counter-terrorism techniques, the U.S. and its allies are safeguarded against a swell in terrorist-related activity.
Overall, Sudani, in strengthening his allyship with the United States, paves way for a more secure future for both countries.