Don’t Abandon Iraq

Opinions 06:02 PM - 2024-04-16


Written by Mina Al-Oraibi, originally published by Foreign Affairs 

The Case for a Continued U.S. Military Presence 

Most Iraqi prime ministers serving in the past two decades have at some point asked the U.S. military to leave their country. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari made the first public call for a U.S. withdrawal in 2005, followed by Nouri al-Maliki in 2008, Adel Abdul-Mahdi in 2020, and Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, the current incumbent, in December 2023. For much of this period, these requests have originated with the Iranian-backed Islamist militia groups operating in Iraq, which have pushed the country’s political leaders to demand a drawdown of U.S. forces. 

Bilateral negotiations over the past 15 years or so have dramatically reduced the U.S. military presence in Iraq since its peak in 2007, when 170,000 U.S. troops were stationed there as part of a “surge” to fight al Qaeda and support the Iraqi armed forces, which were still in the process of rebuilding after the United States dismantled the country’s police force and army in 2003. President Barack Obama withdrew all U.S. troops by late 2011, only to send 3,000 back to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) less than three years later. Today, the United States has an estimated 2,500 soldiers in Iraq. The threat that al Qaeda and ISIS pose in Iraq has significantly diminished, and major acts of violence are rare—which explains the pared-down U.S. troop presence. 

Now, Sudani is seeking to end the U.S. military mission in Iraq altogether. The prime minister faces pressure from his partners in government, a bloc known as the Coordination Framework, which is composed of Islamist Shiite parties closely aligned with Iran. He is also looking to bolster his own position. Although Sudani should have authority over all the armed entities in Iraq as the country’s commander in chief, in practice, militia groups operate either autonomously or through the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization that is legally recognized as part of Iraq’s security apparatus but coordinates directly with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). When Sudani meets with President Joe Biden in Washington on April 15, he will make a case for the United States to remove all American troops, but he is unlikely to put forward a plan to deal with the militias in the aftermath. Doing so would require strengthening Iraq’s institutions, as militia groups and the politicians who support them take advantage of weak state structures. There is little political will right now for such reform, however, given that some members of the governing coalition also hold positions in the PMF. 

The danger of escalation from armed groups is real. In recent months, several militias, including the U.S.-sanctioned Kataib Hezbollah, have become more active, striking Iraqi army bases, American personnel, and a U.S. base in Jordan. One group even claimed to have launched a missile that reached the Israeli city of Eilat, which would have required traversing Jordanian or Syrian airspace. Iran, as the patron backing these militias, stands to gain from the tumult spreading across the Middle East—and a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would give Tehran more opportunities to increase its influence.

If the U.S. military presence ends, U.S. political disengagement is likely to follow. The progress the Iraqi armed forces have made since 2014, when they failed to stop ISIS from sweeping through a third of the country, could be lost if U.S. support disappears—U.S. troops help with professional development and make it easier for the Iraqi military to stay out of politics. Baghdad has been striking a delicate balance as it tries to preserve ties with Iran but resist falling under Tehran’s dictates. Without the United States acting as a counterweight, that balance would be almost impossible to maintain. 

Washington must now use its leverage in Baghdad to maintain a noncombat military presence, similar to the forces it maintains in Germany, Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere. A long-term bilateral agreement for a U.S. troop presence would be a clear show of support for Iraq’s armed forces and a signal that Iraq is not beholden to Iran but an autonomous participant in a wider security architecture. With U.S. and international support, Iraq can move forward along the path to becoming a cornerstone of stability in the region. 


The U.S. presence in Iraq is under the spotlight at a precarious time for the Middle East. The war in the Gaza Strip has created opportunities for outside actors seeking to benefit from the destruction—including Iran. Iranian proxies are more active than ever before, and Iran would like nothing more than for the United States to reduce its presence in the region and leave Iraq entirely. Iran’s gravitational pull for militant groups is growing stronger as Tehran doubles down on its rhetoric about confronting Israel—and its main backer, the United States—amid the devastating war in Gaza that followed Hamas’s attack on October 7. So far, Iran has gone to great lengths to avoid direct conflicts with Israel and the United States, relying on its proxies to hit U.S. and Israeli targets in Iraq, Syria, and the Red Sea. But after Israel’s strike on Iran’s embassy in Damascus on April 1, an attack that killed several senior members of the IRGC, that restraint may loosen. Seeing the U.S. troops stationed in Iraq sent home would hand Tehran a political win at this sensitive time—and give Iran greater freedom to act in Iraq as it calculates its next moves. 

The United States does not have many friends in the Iraqi leadership today, a result of its diplomatic disengagement through the years. Yet this does not mean that Iraqi politicians uniformly want U.S. forces out of the country; Kurdish leaders in particular have historically had close ties to the United States and prefer that U.S. forces remain. Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, a seasoned politician from the Kurdistan region, has expressed his wish for a continued relationship with Washington to address the lingering ISIS threat. And a report in Politico in January quoted “senior advisers” in Iraq’s government who claimed that behind the scenes, officials in Baghdad—including Sudani himself—prefer a continued American presence in the country. (Sudani was quick to deny the report.) Even within the PMF, some political actors that have close ties to Iran are also looking to avoid complete subservience. 

The Iraqi government still seeks military ties to the West

The Iraqi government’s policies are also somewhat contradictory. The current efforts to end the U.S. military presence are part of a wider push to limit international influence in the country: the government is also enforcing the use of the Iraqi dinar for financial transactions instead of the U.S. dollar and curtailing the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which has helped oversee elections and encouraged dialogue among rival political parties. Camps built for Iraqis displaced by violence and managed by the International Organization for Migration and other foreign entities are also due to be closed this summer, even though not all residents have secured permanent homes.

Yet the Iraqi government still seeks military ties to the West. NATO’s mission in Iraq, which helps train and advise Iraqi troops, is not on the chopping block, as Baghdad negotiates a U.S. withdrawal. Sudani met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg earlier this year to reaffirm that he wishes the alliance to stay. Iraq’s leaders clearly want to retain Western military expertise and training, and Washington can use that desire as leverage to ensure that a professional, NATO-supported force will remain in place.

For Iraq to be planning for a post-conflict future is itself a positive development. Baghdad has framed its recent policies as closing the chapter of war and occupation, a step forward that no Iraqi would argue against. But the political maneuvering that brought about this change could destabilize Iraq in the long run, as the seeming victory of the factions that wish to reduce the United States’ influence has meant that there is no similar effort to reduce Iran’s. The calls for the United States to withdraw from Iraq are coming from the same Iranian-allied militias whose leaders openly admit that they take guidance from the IRGC. Ultimately, these groups pose a greater challenge to Iraq’s sovereignty than the foreign troops whose objectives and functions are clearly defined and limited, set in coordination with the Iraqi government, and understood by the Iraqi public.


Previous U.S. administrations have made various efforts to accommodate Iraqi demands to renegotiate the U.S. military presence in Iraq. In Baghdad, memories are still vivid of Washington’s about-face when President Barack Obama came to office pledging to withdraw from Iraq only to send U.S. forces back three years later as ISIS gained ground. In 2020, when the Iraqi government again asked that U.S. troops depart, the Trump administration publicly dismissed the request. The Biden administration, by contrast, has opted to work toward withdrawal, although U.S. officials remain hopeful that a bilateral agreement could allow some troops to remain in Iraq as part of an advisory mission. 

By accepting the basic idea of a U.S. withdrawal, however, policymakers in Washington are ignoring the present-day security challenges in Iraq. For more than two decades, Iraq has been a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy, and U.S. military activities have focused mostly on the terror threat from al Qaeda and later from ISIS. Although those groups still pose threats, their reach has greatly diminished. But in the meantime, other dangers have emerged in the form of rogue militia groups, most of which have been nurtured by Tehran. 

The United States is not without leverage in Iraq

With the United States embroiled in military action not just in Iraq but also in Syria, Yemen, and the Red Sea, American leaders may be tempted to reduce what commitments they can. But they cannot avoid dealing with the threat of Iranianbacked forces in Iraq. In January, Iranian proxies based in Iraq carried out an attack in Jordan that killed three U.S. soldiers. And in the past few months, these militia groups have been threatening to cross through Jordan to take their fight to Israel. Although it now seems unlikely that they would act on these threats, they might perceive more room to maneuver if the United States were to withdraw entirely from Iraq (and from Syria, where 900 U.S. troops are stationed). All told, Iranian-backed militia forces, be they in Iraq or elsewhere, pose a great risk to long-term regional security. Their very presence undermines a state’s monopoly over the use of force, taking the power to decide matters of war and peace out of the hands of recognized governments.

U.S. officials who do support a continued military presence in Iraq are unsure of how to realize that goal. The head of the Iraqi government has publicly called for the U.S. mission to end, and American soldiers cannot stay against Iraqi wishes. To find a solution that is workable for both sides, Washington has to maximize the value proposition of its presence in Iraq and emphasize the cost of its departure. The United States should offer assets such as increased military training and equipment and emphasize to Iraq’s leaders that a withdrawal would limit the country’s access to advanced weapon systems and other benefits that come with being a security partner of the world’s primary superpower.

The United States is not without leverage; Iraq still relies heavily on U.S. political and military support to strengthen its armed forces and work with partners in the region. Sudani’s visit to Washington and his audience at the White House next week was something he and his team had sought for more than a year, an indication of the value a relationship with the United States still holds in Baghdad—as it does in many capitals around the world. The U.S. military cannot expect to maintain as large a military presence in Iraq as it has had in Germany and Japan for the past eight decades. But neither can the Biden administration afford to oversee a chaotic withdrawal from Iraq that would be smaller in scale than the withdrawal from Afghanistan but would serve as yet another sign of the United States’ waning influence. 


There is a key contradiction at the heart of Iraqi politics: the calls for greater Iraqi sovereignty, which translate in practice to ejecting U.S. troops, are stoked by groups who themselves undercut the authority of the Iraqi state by taking orders from Tehran. The United States dealt the initial blow with the 2003 war and occupation, and the damage to Iraqi sovereignty has allowed militias and other nonstate actors to proliferate in the years since. These groups are linked to corrupt networks that weaken the country’s financial, health care, and education systems, and they deploy both patronage and military tactics to fight for clout. Armed militias are embedding themselves within Iraq’s economic and political structures, while nonmilitant parties and independent politicians struggle to limit their influence.

The only viable long-term solution is to rebuild Iraq’s state institutions, weeding out the corruption and nepotism that are undercutting the Iraqi state and energizing the militias groups largely beholden to Tehran. Achieving this will require political parties and politicians who are committed to public service—and who can stand up to foreign governments that meddle in Iraqi affairs, particularly Iran. This remains an unlikely prospect as long as Iranian proxies receive uninterrupted money flows from corruption and extortion and as long as those who seek to reduce the influence of these groups face intimidation in the form of smear campaigns, death threats, and even assassination—a danger that was highlighted by the killing of the Iraqi analyst Hisham al-Hashimi in July 2020, after he publicly criticized Kataib Hezbollah. Reduced American and international engagement would make political change more difficult by removing opportunities for Washington to push the Iraqi government to rein in the militia groups. Even a limited U.S. presence gives Iraq’s leaders leverage to resist pressure from militant factions and make independent decisions.

The issue of the American troop presence in Iraq has become a test of wills between Iraqi political actors who want to see Baghdad clearly aligned with Tehran and those who want to secure Iraq’s independence by balancing ties with Tehran and Washington. What is at stake in this debate is much bigger than a few thousand non- combat soldiers. It is in the interests of both Iraq and the United States to negotiate a long-term agreement that resolves the troop question and sets up the next phase of U.S.-Iraqi relations. Most important, such an agreement would help bring muchneeded stability, putting a spotlight on the need for Iraq’s political leaders to address the country’s domestic challenges. As Washington prepares for the U.S. elections later this year and deals with the fallout of the war in Gaza, Iran will be looking for ways to undermine the United States in the region. Going through with an exit from Iraq would be a political win for Tehran—and a strategic loss for Iraq, as it risks getting pulled further into the Iranian orbit. 

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