US is not withdrawing from Iraq: KRG Envoy
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The United States is not completely withdrawing from Iraq, said a Kurdistan Regional Government official who is part of the strategic dialogue between the two countries.
“Are we concerned about the US withdrawal? Well, the US is not talking about the complete withdrawal in terms of, you know, vacuuming everything out of Iraq. What we're hearing is that the mission would be non-combat advisory and training,” KRG Representative to the US Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman said Monday.
“The coalition troops and the US troops are there to assist us in the fight against ISIS and that's a necessary assistance,” she added.
Several reports appeared late last week that Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and US President Joe Biden would announce when they met on Monday that US combat troops will leave Iraq by the end of 2021.
The object of such a statement would be to reduce pressure on Kadhimi’s government – from the pro-Iran militias in Iraq that seek to drive the US out of the country – ahead of the planned October legislative elections.
By contrast, officials in Washington long maintained, until recently, that the US no longer had combat troops in Iraq and that their mission had transitioned over the previous year to a support role.
Like Abdul Rahman, Douglas Silliman, the former US ambassador to Baghdad recently told Kurdistan 24 that American forces would not be withdrawing completely from Iraq. Rather, he said that he thinks it is Kadhimi’s intention to show that American and other coalition forces in Iraq are not actually in a combat role and have not been “for a long time.”
Abdul Rahman; Michael Knights, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Kamaran Palani, Associate Fellow at the Al Sharq Strategic Research think-tank, spoke Monday in a webinar organized by the Washington Kurdish Institute on the US-Iraq strategic dialogue.
“The Strategic Dialogue has been taking place under the framework of the strategic framework agreement that was signed in 2008 between the US and Iraq,” Abdul Rahman continued.
“The KRG has been part of the implementation of the strategic framework because we are part of Iraq, we have a distinctive role as a region. We play a role in the government and the parliament in Baghdad, so you could argue we've been part of it already, but in the last four rounds of the Strategic Dialogue in 2020 and 2021 we've been active participants in the discussions,” she said.
“We are members of the working committees that after the Strategic Dialogue finishes in Washington. Those working committees will go up, finding practical ways of implementing what has been discussed.”
She said security was only one part of the dialogue, and the talks also included energy, climate change, higher education, and culture. She herself was involved in discussions on health.
Moreover, she said the dialogue is important to understand the Biden administration’s policy towards Iraq, and the Iraqi policy towards the US.
Lingering Threat from ISIS
The representative said that, although ISIS does not hold territory in Iraq like in 2014, they remain a threat in Iraq and the autonomous Kurdistan Region.
“It still ambushes the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces, and carries out sabotage attacks. So it's important that the fight against ISIS continues, but what role should the United States and the coalition play in that’s a question that needs to be addressed,” she said.
Knights, who has strong contacts in the US government, stressed that the US no longer has combat troops in Iraq.
“During the height of the counter-ISIS war, you know, there were times when US artillery forces might detect some ISIS and would engage them in a rapid fire mission, or an airstrike would happen or something like that,” he said.
“Now as the operations are not so intense, every use of military force is quite tightly controlled, and the Iraqis are part of all of those operations. So all US forces in Iraq, and the other members of the international coalition, are operating in a support role and what this session of the dialogue is there to do is to state very formally that, ultimately, there are no unilateral operations inside Iraq.”
He explained that operations are coordinated and led by the Iraqi Security Forces, including the Peshmerga.
“Now they have a timetable at the end of the year for the withdrawal of forces that don't exist anyway, but they want to have that kind of statement,” he concluded.
Knights suggested this was also done to calm down situations ahead of the Iraqi elections, and to “formally state that there are no more US combat forces in the country.”
The Iran-backed militias are unlikely to accept the statement, however, and “will not be satisfied by what happened here in Washington DC,” he said. “But also everyone kind of understands you can't bring us forces in Iraq down to zero if militias are still attacking us bases and the US Embassy.”
Kamaran Palani, a Kurdish expert on Iraq who is based in the Kurdistan Region, explained that religious minorities and Sunni Arabs in Iraq are worried about the dialogue and future foreign troop presence in Iraq.
They see the US as a counter to Iranian influence, said Palani, who has done extensive field research in northern Iraq. People in these areas complain about the dominance of Iran-backed militias, saying those mobilized against ISIS by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and the ones under control of Muqtada al-Sadr, both prominent Shia clerics, are not present.
Sunni Arabs have a similar view, he said: “I think you will find a lot of support among the Sunni community for increasing international engagement, including the US military and political engagement in all of these long term processes.”
“Secondly, which is really the most important one, is the presence of the US forces for the Sunni Arab community is also seen as a balancing force against Iran's influence in Iraq, including Sunni areas,” he concluded.