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Get out: Iraqi MPs push laws calling for US troop withdrawal

Lawmakers have called for American soldiers to leave before, but this is the first time they have set specific deadlines
A US army soldier waves as her regiment prepares to fly out of the al-Asad Air Base in Baghdad on their way home (AFP)

Iraq's two largest political coalitions are pushing for all foreign forces to pull out of the country, days ahead of the 16th anniversary of the US invasion.

According to Iraqi media, parliamentary committees comprising supporters and allies of Sairoun, the coalition backed by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, largely made up of Iran-supported groups, have produced two draft laws calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

One calls for a full withdrawal within 12 months, the other within 36.

The political groups, which are both led by veterans of the fight against the US occupation, have long called for US forces to leave Iraq, particularly following the defeat of the Islamic State group in Mosul in 2017. But this is the first time MPs have backed a specific deadline.

In March 2018, the Iraqi parliament voted for the government to set a timeline for the withdrawal of troops, but nothing happened and the government and parliament have since changed.   

Last month, Sadr said that he would push troop withdrawal onto the parliamentary agenda in March.

Total US withdrawal would be very negative, especially with IS attacks increasing

- David M Witty, analyst

Around 5,200 US troops are estimated to be currently stationed in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.

The latest attempt to remove them comes in the wake of comments made by US President Donald Trump that troops would remain in Iraq to "watch Iran".

During a trip to the Al-Asad airbase in December - a trip which stoked further controversy as the president chose not to meet with Iraqi officials - Trump broke with the official US policy line that troop deployment was purely aimed at targeting IS.

"We spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it," he said.

"And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem."

His comments frustrated Iraqi politicians already insulted that Trump hadn't bothered to meet them.

Hamad Allah al-Rikabi, a spokesperson for parliament’s pro-Sadr bloc, said the visit proved “the recklessness of the United States of America in its dealing with others”.

He called on the parliament to “play its role and adopt a national, historical attitude and put an end to the frequent violations to the Iraqi sovereignty by the American government and to issue a decision to get the American forces out of Iraq".

Despite Trump’s comments, the Pentagon has expressed a willingness to shift more responsibility onto Iraq’s domestic security forces.

Last week, testifying before congress, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said the Pentagon’s proposed 2020 budget would support the “enduring presence” of US troops in Iraq that would be “slightly less than the forces that are on the ground right now".

Qais al-Khazali (C) leader of the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, gives a speech during a campaign rally for the Fatah Alliance (AFP)
Qais al-Khazali (C) leader of the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, gives a speech during a campaign rally for the Fatah Alliance (AFP)

Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has also hit back at calls for US troop expulsion, arguing in February that “continuously mentioning this topic causes worry to the people and confusion to the work of the Iraqi Armed Forces".

Laws drafted by parliament that do not originate in the Iraqi cabinet are generally struck down as unconstitutional, even if approved by the parliament. Even if a withdrawal bill was passed - and it's possible given the numbers that make up the committees - it would likely have no legal effect.

However, the symbolic impact of a such a parliamentary vote could still have impact, and would certainly generate headlines internationally, as happened with similarly struck-down legislation banning alcohol in 2016.

One Iraqi government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak with the media, told Middle East Eye that diplomats in Baghdad believed that even a non-binding bill would put pressure on foreign forces.

“It will force the Americans, due to domestic perception of the bill passing in Iraq, to withdraw their troops,” he said.

He added that even if the legislation eventually only stipulated US forces withdrawing, it would nevertheless have a "domino effect" as other foreign forces in the country - such as British and Spanish forces - lacked the infrastructure to maintain their presence.

A spokesman for the US Department of Defense told MEE he was "not going to comment" on legislation passing through the Iraqi parliament.

After the previous vote in March 2018, a spokesperson for the US-led anti-IS coalition, US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, told Reuters troop withdrawal would be "conditions-based, proportional to need, in coordination with and by the approval of the Iraqi government".

'Iraq's decision'

David M Witty, an analyst and former US Army Special Forces colonel, told MEE the draft legislation “did not clarify if advisers and trainers would stay or not".

“Total US withdrawal would be very negative, especially with IS attacks increasing. And of course, minorities like Sunnis and Kurds want [the] US to stay,” he pointed out.

“But of course, it is Iraq’s decision as a sovereign nation.”

Iraq's government has yet to finish fully forming since parliamentary elections in May 2018, which returned Sairoun as the largest party despite a low turnout.

Much of the wrangling has been over the cabinet posts for the Interior Ministry and Defence Ministry, which both remained unfilled.

Fatah had originally wanted Falih Alfayyadh, the head of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), for the post of interior minister.

Sairoun, however, opposed this nomination on the grounds that it would make the position too politicised. On 8 March, it was announced that Alfayyadh's nomination had been withdrawn.