Iraq and the US withdrawal conundrum

More than a month after the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling on United States troops to withdraw from Iraq, uncertainty regarding the status of US forces in the country persists. The move came in the aftermath of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy chief of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units by US drones.

Although US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the resolution on January 10, local political actors have continued to press for a US withdrawal.

In mid-January, Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr called for a “million-man march” to protest against the presence of US troops in the country which took place on January 24 and attracted large crowds of his supporters.

Newly-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Allawi has not publicly expressed his opinion on the issue, but he will likely align with the people who nominated him, including al-Sadr and the pro-Iran factions.

Yet, despite this pressure from various political forces for the US to withdraw, there is by far no national consensus over it. Both the Sunni and Kurdish leadership in the country have stood up against the move and the issue has the potential to fuel sectarian tensions in the country.

Changing perceptions
The parliamentary vote on the resolution took place along sectarian lines. It was passed almost exclusively by the votes of Shia parties, such as Fatah, Sairoon, Hikma, Sadiqoon, and State of Law, which together command a majority in parliament. Kurdish and Sunni members of parliament largely boycotted the session.

The Shia anti-US vote marks a clear departure from political positions adopted by Shia political forces in 2003.

Seventeen years ago, the Shia and Kurdish communities largely welcomed the US invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. By contrast, the Sunni community viewed it as a disaster because it threatened to undo the privileged position its elite had occupied within the regime – a perception that turned into reality with the de-baathification process that the Americans launched.

Over the years, these attitudes have shifted, as Iran has come to play a significant role in Iraqi domestic politics. Many of the Shia parties have aligned with Tehran and as its confrontation with the US has intensified, they have also increasingly adopted anti-US stances.

The same process, however, has not been replicated among the Shia population. In fact, there have been increasingly anti-Iranian attitudes among Iraq’s Shia. According to the Baghdad-based Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies, 86 percent of Iraqi Shia had a favourable view of Iran in 2014, but just 41 percent did in 2019.

These attitudes have been reflected in the ongoing protests in Baghdad and Shia-majority areas in the centre and south of the country, which have been marked by anti-Iranian chants.

The response of the protesters to the assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis and the parliamentary vote against US military presence was to reject all foreign interference, not just that of the US.

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