Ex-ambassador says US will not withdraw from Iraq

Douglas Silliman, former US ambassador to Iraq. (Photo: Kurdistan 24)
Douglas Silliman, former US ambassador to Iraq. (Photo: Kurdistan 24)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – A former US envoy to Baghdad told Kurdistan 24 on Friday that American forces will not withdraw completely from Iraq, ahead of an expected statement from the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue on the future of foreign troops in the country. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is expected to meet US President Joe Biden in Washington on July 26. The meeting will be part of the ongoing US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue initiated in June 2020.

Douglas A. Silliman, now the president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC and US ambassador to Iraq from 2016 to 2019, said the topic of the talks is much broader than just troop numbers.

Public debate has recently focused again on the fate of the roughly 2,500 US troops who remain on Iraqi soil.

“The focus of the press has been all about what the future of American and other coalition forces in Iraq be, but the reality is that the agenda for the dialogue is much broader and touches on a number of different things,” Silliman said.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that top Iraqi and US officials plan to issue a statement calling for US combat troops to leave Iraq by the end of the year, but would reaffirm the need for a more enduring military presence to help Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS.

Silliman said he thinks it will be Kadhimi’s intention to show that American and other coalition forces in Iraq are not actually in a combat role, and have not been “involved for a long time.”

He cited Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussein, who told the WSJ that Iraq still needs help with intelligence support and training. “We need troops to help us in the air,” for raids Iraqi forces cannot do on their own, the minister had said.

“This has been the American Coalition goal for the past three or four years, but it is important to define it publicly, because the narrative from Iran and the narrative from the militias in the south of Iraq, has tried to define the American military presence as an occupying force,” Silliman explained. “It is not an occupying force.”

In its role as leader of the international coalition against ISIS, the US helps train Iraqi forces and provides other military support.

‘“The United States does not want to see Daesh reappear and get stronger,” the former ambassador said, using an Arabic acronym for the terrorist group. “So I anticipate that there will be continued American and coalition support in the battle against Daesh.”

He added that there are concerns both in Baghdad and abroad about the influence of Iran and Iran-backed militias and political parties, not only in Iraq but also in Syria and Lebanon.

“The United States does not want to see Iraq or other countries in the region under greater influence from Iran,” he said.

What is more important, he said, is that Iraq’s stability greatly influences the rest of the region.

“If Iraq is stable, the rest of the region can more easily be stable. If Iraq is prosperous, the rest of the region can more easily be prosperous. So the talks in Washington are going to talk about the security element, but also about the economic element, investment, corruption and inefficiency in government, and the basic fairness of the system in Iraq to make sure that all of the components of Iraq are fairly represented, and their interests are taken into account.”

Iraq is Not Afghanistan

The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years has raised fears among Kurdish and Iraqi parties who want the coalition to stay in Iraq.

“I don't believe that the United States is going to completely withdraw from Iraq or abandon Iraq,” Silliman said. “The situation in Iraq, and American interests in Iraq, are fundamentally different from American interests in Afghanistan.”

“So anyone who draws a parallel between the two is comparing, as we say in English, apples and oranges.”

He said Biden’s goal is to strengthen the Iraqi government, and that “means to make sure that regional governments – that local governments – are less corrupt, are more efficient, and are more responsive to the desires of the people, and on the security front, to make sure that only security forces that follow the decisions of the government have weapons and are able to use them.”

He said the Iran-backed militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces are theoretically part of the Iraqi government but do not follow the prime minister’s orders. An expansion of their power “is the biggest threat to Iraqi sovereignty.”

Therefore, he argued, there needs to be more internal support for government reforms and political pressure on groups that do not follow the will of the government.

“There is always a problem,” he explained, “if you have a part of your government structure that does not agree to follow the political leadership, the prime minister.”

It is “the responsibility of Iraqis as well, to put pressure on their own political leaders to support policies that will strengthen the government in Baghdad, strengthen the independence and the sovereignty of Iraq, and strengthen the ability of all communities in Iraq to live safe and prosperous lives,” he said.

Support for Kurdistan

The former official said he believed US support for the autonomous Kurdistan Region would continue, especially under the Biden administration.

“There is deep experience and deep knowledge and frankly, friendship, between President Biden, Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken and other senior officials in this administration with Kurdish officials in Erbil and in Sulaimani,” he said.

“There is an understanding of the opportunities for the Kurdistan Region politically and economically, and the United States continues to provide support directly to some units of the Peshmerga, which does not happen to other parts of Iraq – we provide assistance to security forces that belong to the central government in Baghdad, but also to the Peshmerga.”

Silliman said the Kurds have many friends in Washington, and “we are constantly watching to make sure that there is a proper balance and the views of Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurds are taken into account.”

“We are not always effective in pursuing those goals,” he admitted, “but they are things that are constantly on our minds and there are American administration officials and politicians who do think quite a lot, and quite often, about Kurdistan.”