Calling on America to withdraw its forces from Iraq could prove to be utterly self-defeating for the Iraqi government. The most likely consequence of a withdrawal will be the return of ISIS as a major terrorist force. Pictured: The remains of a church that was attacked by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. (Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)
The most likely consequence of any attempt by the Iraqi government to demand the removal of American forces will be the return of ISIS as a major terrorist force, as President Donald J. Trump singled out in his televised address January 8.
The issue of whether the estimated 5,200 US troops currently based in Iraq will be allowed to remain in the wake of the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani has been raised following a nonbinding vote by the Iraqi parliament calling for the withdrawal of American forces.
President Trump immediately responded by threatening Iraq with sanctions and a bill for billions of dollars if Baghdad insisted on the withdrawal taking place, although questions remain about the legitimacy of the Iraqi parliament’s demand.
The resolution was put forward by a pro-Iranian faction in the parliament with the backing of the country’s pro-Iran prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who was forced to resign from office at the end of last year over accusations of corruption. The session, however, was not attended by Kurdish and Sunni parliamentarians, who are keen for Washington to maintain its military presence in the country, as well as other Western allies such as Britain, to help support the Iraqi military’s efforts to prevent ISIS from making a comeback.
It is also questionable how binding the resolution will be on Iraq’s caretaker government, which is only in power until the country’s politicians can agree on a new leader to replace Abdul-Mahdi.
The Trump administration has insisted that the US military will maintain its presence in Iraq for the time being, with Mr Trump remarking that withdrawing American forces would be the “worst thing to happen to Iraq.”
“At some point, we want to get out,” Trump added. “But this isn’t the right point.”
This is certainly the view of many senior Iraqi military officials, who are well aware that without Western support, there is every possibility that the fanatics of ISIS will be able to regroup and make another attempt to establish their so-called caliphate.
Back in the summer of 2014, when ISIS fighters first succeeded in capturing large swathes of territory in northern Iraq, they were able to do so because forces loyal to the Iraqi government were either ill-equipped or unwilling to defend their country against the Islamist extremists.
This success resulted in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born leader of ISIS, fulfilling his long-held ambition of establishing his caliphate in territory captured by ISIS fighters in northern Iraq and Syria, where the group imposed a brutal reign of terror over the inhabitants, with mass beheadings and torture becoming an everyday feature of their brutal rule.
It was only after the intervention of the US-led coalition that ISIS was eventually defeated last year and the caliphate destroyed, forcing thousands of ISIS fighters to flee into exile throughout the Middle East.
Now there are mounting concerns that, with Washington’s primary focus on containing the threat posed by Iran in the wake of the Soleimani assassination, ISIS will be able to take advantage of the mounting chaos in Iraq and regroup, an ambition that would be far easier to realise if the Iraqi government insisted on the withdrawal of US forces.
Western intelligence experts believe that there are now around 10,000 ISIS supporters based in Iraq, with between 4,000-5,000 fighters and a similar number of sleeper cells and sympathisers.
The surviving fighters from Baghdadi’s caliphate, moreover, are seen as being more experienced and more determined than they were under their previous incarnation under the command of Baghdadi, who was killed during a US Special forces operation last year.
As Lahur Talabany, a top Kurdish counter-terrorism official, recently said in an interview with the BBC:
“They have better techniques, better tactics and a lot more money at their disposal. They are able to buy vehicles, weapons, food supplies and equipment. Technologically they’re more savvy. It’s more difficult to flush them out. So, they are like al-Qaeda on steroids.”
Calling on America to withdraw its forces from Iraq could therefore prove to be utterly self-defeating for the Iraqi government. By breaking ties with the country that helped to defeat ISIS, they will simply be placing themselves at the mercy of a new, and bolder, generation of Islamist fanatics.
A US withdrawal from Iraq would also suit Tehran, where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not only called for the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq, but the entire Middle East. Not having the US to provide moral and military support to the Iraqi government would allow Iran to continue its meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, as well as consolidating its malign influence throughout the rest of the region.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph‘s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.
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