Iraq’s leader wants US troops out, but there’s no timeline in place

by Tommy Grant

Iraq’s prime minister has given multiple interviews in recent days declaring that his country is no longer interested in hosting 2,500 troops deployed there in support of the mission to defeat ISIS. But that public rhetoric has not translated to any formal requests either to the Pentagon or White House, according to U.S. officials.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani described the U.S.’s presence as destabilizing in an interview with Reuters published Jan. 10 and no longer justified in a Wall Street Journal interview published Wednesday.

“There is a need to reorganize this relationship so that it is not a target or justification for any party, internal or foreign, to tamper with stability in Iraq and the region,” Sudani told Reuters.

That would include Iran-backed militias who have battered bases housing U.S. troops in both Iraq and Syria over the past several months, escalating attacks from a few times a year to attempts nearly every day since mid-October.

“We agree that after a decade since the formation of the Coalition to Defeat ISIS and its success over that period there is merit to advance discussions for a transition to bilateral arrangements,” a U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the issue, told Military Times on Thursday.

On the record, the Pentagon shied away from engaging with Sudani’s comments.

“We value Iraq as a partner. We’ll continue to consult closely with them,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Defense Department spokesman, said during a press briefing Wednesday. “At this time, I’m not aware of any official request by the government of Iraq for DoD forces to depart, and I’ll just leave it at that.”

A discussion of future troop presence is due to take place at some point in the form of a “higher review commission,” announced in August at the conclusion of the U.S.-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

But no one should expect those negotiations to move quickly, Jonathan Lord, the director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, told Military Times on Friday.

“There’s an old trope that we Iraq analyst hands have, you know: When an Iraqi politician wants to be seen doing something on a difficult issue without actually doing anything? Yeah, they suggest we form a committee,” Lord said.

In fact, Sudani defended the U.S.’s presence in a different Wall Street Journal interview exactly a year ago.

Sudani is under pressure from Iran-aligned members of his government who want the U.S. out, Lord said, the same forces funding and equipping the militias who keep sending drones and rockets toward bases with U.S. troops.

“When I see statements like that, when I see rhetoric like that, it indicates to me that Sudani is not particularly interested in making strong policy moves, but rather appearing to be concerned and to be taking strong policy moves without actually having to change anything at all, at least, you know, in the near term,” Lord added.

The inertia isn’t all on Iraq’s part. Operation Inherent Resolve began in late 2014, but the ISIS caliphate’s last major stronghold, Mosul, was liberated in 2017. Since then, the ramping down of the mission has plodded along.

Combat troops, those who were accompanying and enabling Iraqi troops in missions against ISIS, withdrew at the end of 2021. Since then, the mission has consisted of the odd raid or strike on ISIS leadership in Syria, but the lay down of troops in Iraq has been in a holding pattern.

“Sudani, in fact, does have a political point here, that the relationship between the U.S. military and the Iraqi military should have already evolved beyond a specific objective of the defeat of ISIS, to focus on building an Iraqi military that can stand on its own two feet, and very little of U.S. policy bandwidth or resources has actually been spent to that effect,” Lord said.

If the U.S. does withdraw further from Iraq, the question becomes how to continue operating in Syria without the logistical support provided by an Operation Inherent Resolve node in Iraq.

“You need a ground line of communication to supply those forces in Syria, right? And the Turks never let us do it,” Lord said.

Unless someone comes up with a “harebrained scheme to try to like, air lift support,” he added, there’s no geographical path to northeast Syria from the next closest U.S. base, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait.

In the end, a possible “bilateral agreement” in Iraq could shrink down the U.S. presence to just what’s needed to keep the anti-ISIS mission going in Syria, and maybe a small cohort committed to the ongoing training of Iraqi troops.

“[Sudani], just like every prime minister before him, is on this balance beam of trying to find a middle path by which they can build and benefit from the U.S. relationship and everything that comes with it, including all of the perceived security and the capital investment that potentially unlocks access to U.S. dollars, while also then trying to navigate around what is essentially a deeply entrenched political mafia that has guns,” Lord said.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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