The US military once left Iraq in 2011, under pressure from the anti-war sentiments of the US Democratic Party electorate. However, they had to return there again in 2014 to fight the terrorist organization ISIS, which has taken over vast territories in Syria and Iraq, profited from oil sales at below-market prices, and provoked refugee flows to countries in the Middle East and Europe. The Middle East is likely to be turbulent again.
The formal reason for the departure of the Americans is the decision taken in January 2020 by the majority of Iraqi parliament members to withdraw foreign troops and bases from the country in response to the elimination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and the deputy head of the Iraqi People's Mobilization Forces Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at the airport in Baghdad by an airstrike from a drone. The Americans could try to persuade Iraqi officials to reconsider their decision, given the unstable situation in the country.
In fact, the American military is leaving Iraq because there is a threat to their lives and they lack the capacity to defend themselves. Over the past several years, Iran-sponsored Shiite armed groups Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haqq have been shelling the positions of the US military. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Qadimi criticizes US retaliatory airstrikes on militant positions and considers them a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. However, it is not part of the current administration's plans to send more troops to Iraq to counter Shiite groups. Biden is cutting back its military presence in the Middle East to strengthen the containment of China in the Asia-Pacific region.
Iraqi oil is no longer as valuable to Washington as it was during the presidency of George W. Bush, due to Biden's policy of decarbonizing the economy. In addition, Biden promised his voters to end "eternal wars" and is not afraid of condemnation among opponents of reducing the military presence in the Middle East. Military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan cost American taxpayers $ 6.4 trillion.
The withdrawal of the American military from Iraq is in the interests of Iran, which has practically managed to strengthen its influence in all countries where fellow Shiite Muslims live (the so-called "Shiite crescent"). After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the Ayatollah regime sees Iraq with its large Shiite community as an object of its interests. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian military tried to plant its model of theocratic development on the Iraqis with bayonets.
Biden may have formalized the US cessation of military operations in Iraq to induce Iranian President-elect Ibrahim Raisi to continue negotiations in Vienna and agree to return to the terms of the nuclear deal. Tehran has postponed participation in the negotiations until the inauguration of the new president on August 3, 2021. Biden's compliance is indicative of a deep crisis of US influence in the Middle East. In fact, the Iranians managed to starve out the Americans to leave Iraq, and in this they were helped by the armed groups of the Iraqi Shiites.
The Biden-al-Qadimi agreement bolsters the chances of Shiite political forces like Muqtada al-Sadr's Sairun or Hadi al-Ameri's Fateh coalition to successfully compete in early parliamentary elections in October 2021. The decision to hold them was made under the influence of the protests of Iraqis, dissatisfied with the low standard of living, economic devastation, rampant corruption, and the dominance of Iranian influence in the country. Today Sairun has the largest faction in parliament. Although Biden agreed to allocate $ 5.2 million for the UN monitoring mission in the elections in Iraq, the decision to end the combat mission looks like the unwillingness of Americans to defend democracy in this country. The first free elections in Iraq took place in January 2005, when the US military controlled the situation in the country.
The Iranian leadership will continue regional expansion and interference in the internal affairs of the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah has a significant impact on political processes. In Syria, with the support of the Russian military and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was kept in power. In civil war-torn Yemen, Tehran-sponsored Houthi rebels attack the Marib region.
The weakening of the US position in Iraq is beneficial to China, which is strengthening its presence in the economy of this country. In July 2021, the Iraqi government selected the Chinese state-owned CNCEC as a contractor for the construction of an oil refinery in El Fao. Perhaps Chinese firms will get a contract for the construction of an oil refinery in the Di-Qar region. The Chinese have received contracts for the construction of a cement plant, residential infrastructure, and a commercial center in Iraqi Kurdistan. Shanghai Electric Group has built the Wassit Thermal Power Plant, which covers 20% of Iraq's energy needs.
In 2020, Iraq ranked third after Russia and Saudi Arabia in terms of oil exports to China. The Chinese company Sinopec has received from the Iraqi government the right to develop the Mansuria gas field and claims a share of the American company ExxonMobil in the Qurna-1 oil field. In 2018, the volume of the Sino-Iraqi trade exceeded $ 30 billion. China is Iraq's main trading partner. Former Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi was interested in joining China's Belt and Road Investment and Logistics Initiative.
Who is in the red?
The prospects for secular Arab states, which see Iran as a threat to their security, are not developing in the best way. First of all, this concerns Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Not only are the Americans withdrawing anti-aircraft missile systems and fighters from military bases on their territory, they also left them without cover in Iraq, which can be used by radicals for provocations. In any case, the Houthis are shelling the settlements and infrastructure of Saudi Arabia from the territory of Yemen and support separatism in the border areas. In the event of a go-ahead from Tehran, the armed groups of Iraqi Shiites can do the same.
For decades, the countries of the Persian Gulf have relied on the United States as a guarantor of their security. In the light of recent events, they will have to rethink their strategy and rely on their own strengths, to strengthen their defenses. The policy of Saudi Arabia may turn out to be unpredictable. Given the difficult relations with the US and the EU after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the arms embargo on Germany and some other European countries, Riyadh may switch to arms suppliers from China and Russia. If negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran end in failure, this could lead to the threat of Saudi Arabia launching its own nuclear program with the support of Pakistan or China. An alternative option is the formation of a military alliance between the Arab countries and Israel against a common enemy.
Strengthening China and Iran in Iraq is not desirable for Turkey. Turks import oil from Iraqi Kurdistan and Kirkuk province. From time to time, the Turkish military conduct counter-terrorist operations against the armed formations of the Kurds in northern Iraq, which maintain ties with the separatist organization "Kurdistan Workers' Party".
From superpower to dwarfs
It is common for the Biden administration to play down the negative impact of the US withdrawal on the Middle East. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken believes that there is no need for the presence of American combat units in Iraq. As a last resort, 900 American troops serving in neighboring Syria can be involved in the operations. Iraqi Colonel Haji Bakr is of a different opinion. According to him, after the troops of the anti-terrorist coalition left the K1 military base in Kirkuk province, ISIS attacks have become more frequent. There are at least 10,000 scattered ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq. Shiite groups are systematically shelling the central quarters of Baghdad, where diplomatic institutions and offices of foreign companies are located.
Biden's actions cast doubt on America's ability to take responsibility for maintaining international security and claim to be world leader. As pragmatic as the American leader is, he will go down in history as the president who put an end to the exclusive interests of the United States in the Middle East. Although the United States is considered a superpower, Biden's team behaves like the authorities of small states that are afraid to toughly defend their interests and use military force when necessary.