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Will Iraq finally push US troops out because of Gaza?

January 10, 2024

After the US assassinated the leader of an Iraqi militia in Baghdad, the Iraqi government has said it will kick US troops out. Do tensions around Gaza make it more likely this time?

A military parade was organized at the Police Faculty in Baghdad.
US troops are in Iraq to help fight the extremist "Islamic State" group — even though Iraq said the extremists were defeated in 2017Image: Murtadha Al-Sudani / Pool/AA/picture alliance

The Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza offers Iraq "a historic opportunity," Hassan Nasrallah, the influential leader of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, said in his speech late last week.

Hezbollah is a political and military organization based in Lebanon and is opposed to Israel. As such, it is part of a network of groups in the region, which Iran supports to one degree or another, that feel the same way about Israel. That includes the Houthis in Yemen and various paramilitary groups in Iraq.

As Nasrallah said in his speech, all of these groups have been "distracting the enemy" during the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Hezbollah, whose military wing the European Union classifies as a terrorist organization, has been exchanging rocket fire with Israeli troops on Lebanon's disputed southern border with Israel. The Houthis are attacking commercial vessels off their own coast, and Iraqi groups have launched rockets and drones against US bases in their country.

Over 100 attacks on US bases in Iraq

Iraqi militias operating under the name "Islamic Resistance in Iraq" are thought to have been behind many of the over 100 attacks targeting US bases in Iraq and Syria, launched since the Gaza conflict began.

A propaganda billboard for the pro-Iran Hezbollah Brigades militia hanging over Palestine Street in the centre of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, depicting three of their masked fighters walking along a road between palm trees.
The "Islamic Resistance in Iraq" is an umbrella group for several of Iraq's Iran-sponsored militia groupsImage: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Although numbers have dropped hugely from a peak of around 130,000 during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, there are still around 2,500 American soldiers stationed in Iraq. They are mostly there as part of the international coalition fighting the extremist "Islamic State" (IS) group.

The US has responded in different ways to these attacks In Iraq, but mostly, they've been restrained, observers say. However, a US missile strike in Baghdad last week killed Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, a senior member of one of the Iran-backed militias, Harakat al-Nujaba.

Members of the Iraqi government, including Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, described the US attack as a blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty and a "dangerous escalation."

By Friday, the Iraqi government was discussing plans to kick US troops out of Iraq permanently. Experts say this wouldn't even necessarily be that difficult and likely only requires a letter because the US troops are in Iraq at the government's invitation. 

"While the security setup is different today, and foreign troops are in Iraq in an advisory capacity at the invitation of the Iraqi government since 2014, it is not a permanent setup," Hamzeh Hadad, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained to DW. 

Will it really happen?

Long-time observers of Iraq are aware that these kinds of threats are made regularly. In fact, they've been made at least once a year since 2011, the year that the US largely withdrew from Iraq. The only lapse in such threats came after 2014, when the IS group took over large swathes of Iraq and Syria, and the US was invited back to help repel extremist fighters.

In 2020, the US assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani provided fresh impetus to call for a US withdrawal.

Since then, calls for the US military to leave Iraq have come more regularly again. The conflict in Gaza, in which the US is seen as unambiguously supportive of Israel, has seen another round of these demands. Last week's assassination of al-Jawari, an escalation of sorts, only brings them into sharper focus. 

Iraqis, including supporters of Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), hold placards as they gather to mark the one year anniversary of the killing of senior Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani .
Iraqis protesting Qassem Soleimani's death; he was well known as an important coordinator of Iran-backed military groups in Iraq Image: Thaier Al-Sudani/REUTERS

Iraqis do not just debate the US presence because of 2003's contentious invasion, but it is also disputed because the US is one of two countries with outsize influence in Iraq. The other is neighboring Iran. The two nations are foes and are seen as balancing the other out in Iraq, preventing either from having too much influence.

"In Iraq, there are people that support America, and there are people that support Iran," explained Abu Firas al-Hamdani, a former TV journalist and politician in Iraq, now residing in the Netherlands.

"Just as some are demanding the US' exit, others are calling for Iran to leave. Then there are other Iraqis whose goal is Iraqi independence from both [nations]."

The US role in Iraq today

"If we're really honest, the debate [about US presence] has moved on from the anti-IS mission," said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Century Foundation and author of a new book about Shiite politics and religion, "God's Man in Iraq."

"Iraq doesn't need as much support as it needed in the past. Iraqis probably have enough capabilities to stop [the IS group] from relaunching a large insurgency."

But there are other benefits, Jiyad noted, like military training, logistics, reconnaissance, assisting with special forces' operations and aerial support, intelligence sharing and access to high-end US military equipment. 

Iraqi fighter jets fly in formation during a parade marking Army Day in Baghdad, Iraq.
The US provides Iraq access to military equipment, including F16 fighter jetsImage: Hadi Mizban via REUTERS

At the same time, the US sees Iraq as a place from which to counter Iranian influence, Jiyad said, and its Iraqi bases serve America's own strategic purposes. The US bases can also be considered problematic because the Iraqi government has as little control over them as it does over the Iran-backed militant groups.

"The Iraqi government can't stop these [Iran-backed] militias from attacking US interests. And it can't stop the US from retaliating either," Jiyad told DW. "That is, launching air strikes and conducting assassinations without Iraqi permission. That's a big problem, and it puts the Iraqi government in a very difficult position."

Maintaining stability?

The US has made it clear they want to remain in Iraq. If they were to depart permanently, or if they were forced out, the Americans have suggested that might change things for the worse, Jiyad explained.

The US government might not see Iraq as an ally any longer, perhaps even as aligned with Iran. This could bring problems, he suggested, including the threat of sanctions, the possible withholding of billions in Iraqi foreign reserves currently in the US and no more military cooperation.

At the same time, though, pro-Iranian politicians and militants in Iraq — and last week, Hezbollah's Nasrallah, too — are all increasing their calls to expel the Americans due to their support of Israel in the Gaza conflict.

 Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani attends an event in Baghdad.
Experts say that although Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani is under pressure, he is unlikely to want US troops to leave altogetherImage: Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency/Pool via REUTERS

But all the experts DW spoke with said that was unlikely to happen. A special committee is being formed to help "end the presence of the international coalition forces in Iraq permanently." But special committees are an oft-used delaying tactic in Iraqi politics.

Despite what they're saying publicly, the Iraqi government might likely prefer to maintain the status quo, al-Hamdani said.

"I think the Iraqi government is in a very difficult position right now and probably wants to negotiate a way out of this," Jiyad concluded. "But if there's an escalation, the Prime Minister's hand might be forced. That is possible. It just depends on the severity of events on the ground," the expert and author concluded.

Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp

Antony Blinken's Mideast diplomacy

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.