For seventeen years British and US soldiers have been in occupation of Iraq. At first this occupation was openly acknowledged. Later it was presented as offering security to the US-sponsored regime which in turn ‘invited’ the troops to stay on. Gradually successive Iraqi governments, acting under popular pressure, have sought to set deadlines for the troops’ departure, but the army never quite managed to find the exit.
As things stand, there are still about 7,500 coalition grunts squatting on Iraqi soil, of whom 5,000 are from the US. Needless to add, this conservative estimate does not include the numerous contractors, mercenaries and other camp-followers who buttress the occupation.
Now, though, with the imperialist proxy war against Syria collapsing in disarray, national resistance in Yemen gathering pace and Iran acting as a powerful pole of attraction for anti-imperialist struggle across the Middle East, patriotic Iraqis are growing ever more vocal in their demands that the continuing de facto occupation must end forthwith. In January the parliament demanded that the troops should finally pack their bags, making it plain that the writing is on the wall for the occupation.
The murder in January, by US drone, of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, right in the middle of Baghdad airport, brought matters to a head. Initial retaliation by the resistance took the form of a missile strike on a US base, followed soon after by further attacks. In February two US soldiers and one British one were killed when the Taji military base was rocketed, and the retaliatory airstrikes that followed only triggered more punishment for the occupying forces as the base drew further attacks.
These bases, intended by the US as launch pads for aggression against Iraq’s neighbour, Iran, are starting to look more like sitting ducks for Iran-backed militias. Consequently, in March, bases at Kirkuk, Qaim and Qayyarah were closed down, and in April al-Taqaddum air base was shuttered too, and the keys turned over to the Baghdad government, along with $3.5 million worth of equipment. British, French and Czech contingents began to melt away from as early as February, their departure hastened by fears of Covid-19.
The official line to explain the base closures was the laughable assertion that the task of training up the Iraqi military to combat terrorists had been successfully completed, rendering the presence of coalition forces superfluous. Brigadier General Vincent Barker, speaking for the grandly titled Operation Inherent Resolve, assured the public that the Iraqis have “proven capability to bring the fight to ISIS,” and no longer need American troops beside them (‘Downsizing, but no departure: US military leaves another base in Iraq’, RT, 4 April 2020).
The reality is that the coalition mission was never really about getting rid of ISIS, but all about the US push for full spectrum dominance in the region, culminating in war against Iran. Patriots in the armed forces who are serious about fighting terrorists are cooperating with the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Iraqi militias supported by neighbourly assistance from Iran. For the PMF, the fight against terrorists is inseparable from the fight against the imperialist sponsors of terrorism.
Splits within US imperialism
However, it is too early to hang out the bunting for a US retreat. The plan appears to be to decant the troops from the abandoned bases into two major bases, one in Baghdad and the other at an airbase about 100 miles to the west of Baghdad, Ain-Al-Assad, where a new airport is under construction and regular patrols operate in the vicinity. This move is open to interpretation: it could be seen as a retreat or as a consolidation. And this ambiguity is reflected in radically contradictory signals coming from the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and the top commander in Iraq, concerning policy over Iraq and Iran.
In March a classified internal military directive issued by the Pentagon was leaked to the press. The directive ordered commanders in the field to draw up plans for an escalation of US combat in Iraq, targeting in particular one of the PMF militias, Kataib Hizbollah, credited with having originated some of the most impressive attacks on the occupying forces. But a leaked memo from the most senior military commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Robert P White, warned in blunt terms that such a campaign would need thousands more US troops and would be bloody and counterproductive. White’s memo says that such a campaign would divert resources from what was ostensibly the primary mission: training Iraqis to fight ISIS. (Whether even he really believes this hoary propaganda line is hard to credit.)
The New York Times reports that Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State) and Robert C O’Brien (National Security Adviser) “have been pushing for aggressive new action against Iran and its proxy forces and see an opportunity to try to destroy Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq as leaders in Iran are distracted by the pandemic crisis in their country” (Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, ‘Pentagon order to plan for escalation in Iraq meets warning from top commander’, 27 March 2020). Meanwhile Mark T Esper (Defence Secretary) and General Mark A Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) are said to be “wary of a sharp military escalation” that could “further destabilise the Middle East”. Pressed for clarification of the US war plans, the Pentagon spokesman (ludicrously still claiming that the US is in Iraq ‘at the invitation of the Iraqi government’ despite it having been given its marching orders back in January), flannelled hopelessly, bristling that “We are not going to discuss hypotheticals or internal deliberations” (ibid).
In short, US imperialism is having the greatest difficulty in deciding what to do about either Iraq or Iran. It is too scared to leave Iraq for fear of losing face, but if it just lingers on like a bad smell then, sooner rather than later, patriotic forces in Iraq will find a way to fumigate their homeland. Yet if it tries to regain the offensive by extending its attack on patriotic Iraqi militias into open hostilities against Iran, it will surely be digging its own grave. These are the unsavoury ‘hypotheticals’ between which the US must now choose.