It seemed like a good idea at the time…
On Jan. 4, 2024, the U.S. assassinated Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, a commander in an Iran-linked Iraqi militia. The Pentagon press release called the militia a “terrorist group” and claimed the strike was in “self-defense.” But it neglected to mention the militia was also part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an Iraqi government body that falls under the Ministry of Defense.
Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, criticized the killing and announced that Iraqi and U.S. representatives would soon meet to discuss the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, saying the justifications for the existence of the coalition “have ended.”
In 2020, Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution demanding the expulsion of U.S. troops after the U.S. killed Iran Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
In 2024, will Sudani deliver on that demand?
Jawari’s death comes just weeks after Israel’s counterattack on Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip. The region is enraged over Israel’s treatment of Palestinian civilians; the killing of an Iraqi official, in the city of Baghdad, no less, will undoubtably worsen relations between Baghdad and Washington at a time when the U.S. is busy in Gaza and the Red Sea.
U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria have been attacked over 100 times since October 2023. Retaliation by the Americans is fair enough, but killing a senior Iraqi commander near the anniversary of the assassinations of Soleimani and Muhandis is professional malpractice, as it looks like the killing was approved with no concern for the consequences (though some may think it was a clever warning to others).
The Pentagon produced no “ticking bomb” rationale for the killing and would have shouted it from the rooftops if it existed. The Pentagon killed Jawari because it could. Related: Tensions Rise in the Horn of Africa
America’s action will increase pressure inside Iraq’s government, as it must deal with popular outrage over Israel’s destruction of the Gaza Strip and the afront to its sovereignty by the Jawari killing.
So, will the Americans finally leave Iraq?
If the two sides eventually do talk, the Americans will very likely delay and delay — and then threaten Baghdad by increasing restrictions on Iraq’s foreign currency reserves held by the U.S. Federal Reserve. The Iraqis may push past that and demand a publicly announced schedule, though Washington will want to keep the details secret for “operational security” (i.e., to avoid mocking TikTok videos of the evacuation).
Evacuating Iraq will threaten support for the U.S. troops in Syria, which the Pentagon claims are there to ensure the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In reality, with ISIS being defeated in 2019, the troops are really there to someday support a coup against the Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus, and to provide security for the extraction of oil, natural gas and wheat from Syria’s northeast. The American looting of Syria’s wealth — what the Bolsheviks called “expropriation” — recalls Gen. Smedley Butler: “I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism.”
Thank you for your service, indeed.
If the Americans refuse to leave, the Iraqis cannot do much to force them out, other than declare the U.S. forces are in the country illegally and that it has no host nation obligation to protect them. The militias will attack the American bases, but the real threat may come from patriotic Iraqi truckers who will refuse to deliver food, water and fuel to the U.S. outposts. If the U.S. attempts resupply by air, Baghdad can close the airspace to foreign military aircraft. The Kurds may try to cooperate with the U.S., as there is an American facility at Erbil airport, but they were brought to heel by a previous airspace closure and will be again.
If the supply line to the U.S. bases in Iraq is severed, the U.S. presence in Syria is threatened; this will please Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad, as the U.S. troops there are the cause of local instability, not a preventative. Washington will carp about increased Iranian influence in the region, but it was the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq that handed Iraq to Iran on a salver.
U.S. restraint would have kept Jawari alive, and may have allowed troops to stay in the country a little longer, but his killing will likely strengthen Sudani, as he will claim he was the Iraqi leader who saw the Americans off. He won’t show any gratitude as he does so.
Removing troops from Iraq won’t save much money but will reduce tensions, as they are there as justification for American intervention when they inevitably draw fire. Washington’s dream of a coup in Damascus will hopefully vanish; a coup would invite intervention by Russia, Turkey, Iran and Islamist forces, which would then increase pressure on Washington’s client, Israel.
It has been 20 years since America disrupted the region by attacking Iraq based on lies: that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraq was cooperating with al-Qaeda. America is still respected in the region for its many achievements, even though it brings violence and chaos in its wake — but in this case, its absence may help local hearts grow fonder.
By James Durso for Oilprice.com
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