We have met the foreign terrorists, and we are them. At least, that’s the situation in Iraq. For months, Iraqi Prime Minster Adel Abdul-Mahdi had thwarted attempts by members of parliament to hold a vote on the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. Though Abdul-Mahdi is a Shiite and his party has connections with Iran—connections that helped general public protests in Iraq throughout the fall—he also regarded the U.S. troops in Iraq as a stabilizing force, and appreciated the training, equipment, and funding that came with the presence of those forces. All of that changed after Donald Trump first bombed militia bases inside Iraq over Abdul-Mahdi’s objections, then killed not just Iranian general Qassem Soleimani but a number of Iraqi Shiite militia leaders in an attack near Baghdad airport.
Abdul-Mahdi didn’t just drop his objection to holding a vote. He championed the idea. As al-Jazeera reported, the prime minister called an extraordinary session of parliament for the sole purpose of issuing an urgent declaration expelling all foreign troops from Iraq. The measure also explicitly canceled the “request for assistance” which gave a legal basis for the U.S. to operate in Iraq. Even then, the largest group in the Iraqi parliament felt that the measure—calling on all U.S. forces to leave Iraq immediately—was a “weak response” that was “insufficient against American violation of Iraqi sovereignty” following Trump’s attacks.
While the Defense Department hurriedly walked back a letter sent to Abdul-Mahdi announcing that U.S. forces would begin “repositioning” with an intent to withdraw, the Iraqi prime minister made it clear that he took the letter seriously and expected the United States to leave. Now.
Only the U.S. is refusing to leave. Trump, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has made it clear that the United States intends to occupy Iraq over the objections of the government. Even though Trump had previously said he would pull troops out if the Iraqi government wasn’t “grateful enough” for the support he was providing, now Trump is demanding a multi-billion dollar ransom before he will consider leaving.
This means that the one clear result of Donald Trump’s “get tough” actions may not just be a still-simmering war with Iran. But a war with the Iraqi government that we created.
Officially, there are no U.S. bases in Iraq. Other than the few hundred Marines still inside the Green Zone, the 5,000 American forces scattered across Iraq are embedded with the 54,000 members of the Iraqi military. After all, the only mission American troops are officially allowed to take at this point is the training of Iranian troops.
That means that Trump and Pompeo are insisting that U.S. forces stay put, even though they are mingled, at a 10:1 disadvantage, with Iraqi troops carrying American weapons who have undergone American training. And not only could U.S. soldiers be facing overwhelming numbers of Iraqi troops who are sharing the same bases, those American forces are also facing hundreds of thousands of militia members, many of them with connections to the Iraqi government, many of them experienced fighters from the struggle against ISIS.
Trump may think he’s being clever by simply refusing to budge. But it didn’t take 5,000 American troops to secure Iraq. It took 150,000. And even then it didn’t bring real security. It brought only prolonged low-level warfare in which over 4,400 American soldiers were killed.
America can not stay in Iraq without tremendous losses, if Iraq does not want those troops to remain present.
The removal of remaining American forces from Iraq could be the one good thing to result from Trump’s completely irrational actions. It’s many, many years past time to pull out troops from an occupation that is going nowhere after an invasion that should have never happened. Only Trump is blocking that thing. And in refusing to allow American forces to depart, he is risking their utter destruction.
The Iraqi parliament didn’t just order the expulsion of all foreign forces in Iraq, it has a label for those who refuse to go. It calls them terrorists. And the U.S. has already established what can be done to terrorists — anything.