Is the US withdrawing from Iraq?

In May last year I met an event the Iraqi President and Prime Minister and the Kurdish-Iraqi President and Prime Minister. The mood was good, the words were conciliatory: Shaping the future of Iraq together. Kurds and Arabs, Muslims, Yazidis and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites. Everyone involved knew that it wouldn't be that easy, that it never was that way and that it didn't correspond to reality at the time. But the prospect of such a future was tempting.

Erbil Airport - the tarmac is shared between civil and military planes
Erbil Airport – the tarmac is shared between civil and military aircraft

Iraq has long been under Iran's control. The drifts are complicated. There are Hashd Al Shaabii militias in Iraq that are controlled, trained and well-educated by Iran, but they are partially financed from the budget of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. These groups, of all people, had great success in the fight against the terrorist organization Islamic State after the Iraqi army collapsed. But politically and economically there are countless complicated interrelationships on many levels. These have been maintained and expanded for decades.

Iran's sphere of influence is large. Through its militias in Iraq, they can build a bridge to Syria, from there to Lebanon and all the way to Gaza. This allows you to project power into Israel through the various terrorist organizations. They need this as a bargaining chip in the event of a war with the USA. 

Iran and its militias

Iran is like the puppet master who causes individual organizations to rise, grow big and small and disappear again. Four years ago I was able to go to Iraq without an Iraqi visa to Mosul, because the Badr militia, which was powerful there, allowed me to do this. At that time, according to its own statements, it had more than 70.000 men under arms; today there are said to be 20.000. And they have lost their dominance within the heterogeneous Hashd as Shaabi militias. They had fallen out of favor with Iran or someone else was better, more brutal, more docile. Today Kata'ib Hezbollah is more feared, tomorrow it could be someone else. So Iran has its different groups in each of these countries. 

US troops in Kurdistan

To this day, the USA has several air bases in central Iraq and self-administered Kurdistan Iraq. From there, the Islamic State is still fought today and the US troops in Syria are supplied, who, among other things, protect the US oil fields there. According to Iran, the bases are also the starting point for espionage operations against Iran. Getting the US to withdraw is not easy. It's like scaring the sleeping bear off the porch of your house. If Iran does nothing, the USA will stay. If they bomb too quickly and too heavily, the US could feel overly provoked. Therefore, local militias with smaller rockets and grenades have been tasked with occasionally bombing US facilities. For years there has been property damage, injuries and rarely deaths every few weeks. 

Since 2022, ballistic missiles have also been used, which were fired directly from Iran. Recently, Iran has also been testing how much drones and missiles the US can intercept before it becomes overwhelmed. The next step will probably be a major attack with some dead US soldiers. This is likely to spark a public debate in the USA about the sense or nonsense of this deployment. 

Withdrawal of US troops

Blue: the civilian airport, red: air force base, yellow: residential area pavilion

But there is such a debate even now. There are rumors on site that “high-level talks” about a withdrawal from central Iraq will take place in the following days. The Harir air base, around 70 km from the Kurdish capital Erbil, is also to be largely abandoned. Only Erbil should be preserved. The base shares the tarmac with the civilian international airport in Erbil. Just a few meters away, the “Pavillon” luxury villa district is currently being built. If the residents of the villas were hit by Iranian missiles in the future, this could also endanger the mission of the Americans and their allies on the base. 

The Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister said today on X (formerly Twitter): “I met with US Ambassador Ms. Alina Romanowski in Baghdad; We have received an important letter from the US government to the Iraqi government. The letter will be reviewed by His Excellency the Prime Minister Mr. Mohamed Shia and forwarded to the relevant authorities. The next steps will be taken in this regard.”

Potential consequences of deduction

If the US actually withdraws from central Iraq, it will be difficult to project power there. Iran would have free rein to use hundreds of kilometers of open borders with Iraq and Syria for its own purposes. The future of the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq would also be unclear. So far there are its own elections, its own government and its own parliament. This, too, depends heavily on the protection of the USA and its allies. 

This development could have major and long-term consequences for the entire Middle East and once again strengthen Turkey's negotiating position. With Israel, Jordan and Qatar, you would be one of the few partners in the region.