Iraq in West Asia: Prospect of the US Withdrawal and Reasserting Its Role as a Regional Player

When one looks back in history, the ripples created by pictures of Chris Donahue, the last American soldier to step off Afghan soil will be viewed in tandem, with 1969 images of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

The last of the US troops departed Afghanistan on the 31st of August after the Taliban regained swift control of the country after nearly two decades of war.

Even though events in Afghanistan are being watched closely all over the world, there is one country in particular that has been scrutinizing the US withdrawal with increasing trepidation. That is Iraq.

Here it is important to note that there are differences in the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – one of the key being that the US had already fully withdrawn from Iraq in 2011 but returned when ISIS reared its head in Mosul. Currently, there are 2500 US troops in Iraq, with 2000 more being deployed in the next nine months. This casts a shadow of doubt over Washington’s announcement earlier this year to conclude their combat mission by December 2021.

International Image Reinvigoration

Iraq’s socio-political landscape has been repeatedly worsening primarily due to the incessant corruption and as a result public distrust. For a long time, Iraq has been a playpen for both regional and international players, competing for influence. Now, however, Baghdad seems to be trying to reinvigorate past prestige by reasserting its role as a regional player by engaging in stabilization and mediation efforts between rival regional actors.

The latest attempt was on August 28, 2021, in the form of the Baghdad Summit. Previously, Iraq had hosted a trilateral between Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan under the framework called “the New Orient” as well as multiple rounds of talks between delegations from Iran and Saudi Arabia. Of course, these efforts can be viewed as assays by Iraqi Prime Minister Kadhimi to regain trust from the Iraqi populace in light of the upcoming elections on October 10.

It should also not be forgotten that Iraq is still in a state of conflict. Attacks from ISIS elements still continue, there are risks of escalation of ethnic and sectarian tensions as well as continuous efforts by the PKK to gain control in the northern parts of the country. The Taliban’s unprecedented and swift takeover of Kabul has raised anxieties within Iraq primarily because of the presence of foreign forces in the country.

This is why it would not be incorrect to assume that Iraq is trying to strengthen cooperation with countries in the region to bring some semblance of stability to the region and as an upshot Iraq itself. Sideways, Baghdad is also intensifying collaboration with countries that have global influence such as France presumably because it needs support on issues such as corruption and reconstruction, and rehabilitation.

Iran-Iraq Close Ties

The assassinations of General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 and his Iraqi associate Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis by US forces resulted in anger across the globe. Amidst the outrage, former Foreign Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif predicted that the deaths marked the start of the end of US presence in West Asia. Sure, enough the assassination had the effect of creating a degree of consensus within Iraq concerning the presence of foreign forces in the country. This climaxed in the Iraqi parliament vote to expel US troops.

Iran and Iraq share more than 1400 kilometers of border and its religious composition provides the basis of a strong connection between the two countries. Iran has pursued two main policies in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. First, it has nurtured relations with longstanding political allies, and second, it has sought to promote its image within Iraq through a variety of policies on an ad hoc basis such as through the provision of conciliatory services between disputing parties, reconstruction of Holy places and other charitable activities and through the media network. However, this is not sufficient to counter US influence in Iraq which is heavily invested in the Iraqi economy and military which is why Iran has had to focus on cultural and religious initiatives to exert its influence. 

The biggest of these is the annual Arbaeen Pilgrimage in which millions of Shia Muslims from all over the world partake. In order to promote the event, Iranian charities engage in the provision of funding to national pilgrims and the Iranian Government also grants visas at favorable exchange rates. Though the Covid19 pandemic has been a major blow to the Iranian economy and the past two years have seen a significant reduction in pilgrims to Iraq, nevertheless, Iran continues to channel its soft power through activities such as the refurbishment of shrines.

Tension and conflict between Iran and the US is old news. At the moment it seems Iran is channeling a wait-and-see policy regarding the unfolding of the recent Baghdad-Washington agreement on ending the US combat mission in Iraq. One can expect the renewable of tensions if the final result does not meet the optimisms of Iran and its Iraqi allies.

Conclusion

As for Iraq, it remains to be seen how things will unfold post the 10th October elections. Unquestionably, Iraq is too important for the US to completely withdraw its presence because the US’s core interests in West Asia have not changed nor can be overlooked. Persian oil still has sizeable global demand and the since West Asia sits at the junction of three continents, this gives the US further incentive to protect it from those it perceives as a threat to its authority. All this said it goes without saying hope has been in short supply, especially in the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, and undoubtedly, Iraq as well as West Asian region at large are in desperate need of a rose-colored glass.

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