U.S. Officials: The Iraqis Aren't Gonna Kick Us Out

PM Sudani isn't rushing the U.S. out the door, so people I spoke with aren't sweating it. But he says he's serious about the troops leaving. PLUS: Lloyd Austin, WTAF? 

U.S. Officials: The Iraqis Aren't Gonna Kick Us Out
Secretary of State Blinken meets with Iraqi PM Mohammed Al Sudani in Munich in February 2023.

Edited by Sam Thielman

A REPORTER FRIEND ASKED ME yesterday if I thought the Iraqis were actually kicking the U.S. out. I said I didn't bet on it, even following Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani's demand for (deep breath) initiating a process that yields an orderly U.S. departure following last week's U.S. drone strike in Baghdad that killed a commander in the quasi-official, Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Front militia coalition. But I also said I wanted to do some more reporting on it from people close to the issue. 

After speaking with several current and former U.S. and Iraqi officials, including three who are currently serving, my sense is firmly that the U.S. military presence in Iraq expects to remain exactly where it is for the foreseeable future. Whether that expectation matches reality is a different and less certain question. Sudani is beginning to clarify his remarks but is not at this time walking them back. 

Several people I spoke with, none of whom had authorization to speak with me, highlighted that the bureaucratic machinery that would have to begin gearing up for a departure is idle. Some consider its idleness a reflection of a straightforwardly imperial prerogative, and not something they personally think is wise or honorable on the part of the United States.

One expectation I encountered was that Sudani knows his military is unprepared for the challenge the remnants of the Islamic State could mount if the U.S. actually leaves. Therefore, the Americans figure, he's not going to push it. Perhaps he might even leverage an eventual U.S. departure with the militias to produce calm. 

Sudani "has got to convince folks there that they need to cut it out with the attacks, especially if they want the U.S. to leave sooner rather than later," a State Department official told FOREVER WARS. 

Many in U.S. "national security" circles think Sudani won't tempt an ISIS resurgence by kicking the U.S. out. In fairness to them, they watched ISIS overrun the Iraqi Army so frighteningly that the Iraqi political establishment invited the U.S. back in 2014. That said, back then ISIS was on the rise. If the current iteration of it can still overmatch the Iraqi army, then the real story is the persistent inability of the U.S. to build and train a capable force in Iraq, which is the post-2021 rationale for the residual U.S. presence. (And I note as well that unlike a decade ago, Iraq possesses, for better or worse, an organized, Iranian-sponsored and legitimized bulwark of tens of thousands of militiamen experienced in fighting ISIS on the ground, and those militiamen outnumber U.S. troops.) 

One person I reached out to was a longtime contact of mine, someone who frequently returns to Iraq, and whom I can count on for a reliable, ground-truth informed counterweight to my misapprehensions. I expected him to say the Sudani statement was all for show and the U.S. isn't going anywhere. Instead I was surprised to hear this person be more equivocal than the currently serving officials I spoke with. His bottom line was that the longer the Israelis assault Gaza, the less tenable it is for Sudani to acquiesce to a continued U.S. welcome. That might be something for the Biden administration to consider, since the Israelis are digging in for what Defense Minister Yoav Gallant says is a military assault on Gaza that will last for months at least. 

But I don't see signs of any diplomatic linkage of Gaza and the U.S. presence in Iraq. For that matter, I don't see signs of the U.S. doing anything material to restrain the Israeli assault. I only hear meager, cautious rhetoric as the Israelis kill Palestinians at scale, starve them and subject them to the ravages of illness after destroying their hospitals and homes. And I see the Biden administration continuing to provide Israel with artillery to do it

As I was doing my call-arounds for this edition, my former Daily Beast colleague Erin Banco, now with Politico, characteristically scooped me. Erin and her colleague Lara Seligman learned of an internal State Department cable saying that Sudani isn't serious about evicting U.S. troops and told his American contacts discreetly that he's insincerely pandering to anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq. The conveyed sentiment certainly meshes with what I heard from my sources. 

That said, the 21st century history of Iraq is full of departures from what Americans there expected to encounter. In 2007-8, U.S. diplomats including current Biden Mideast coordinator Brett McGurk thought they were negotiating an enduring U.S. presence through a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), only to learn that the Iraqis would only extend one through 2011. Then, in 2011, a U.S. team helmed by Biden thought it was getting that agreement extended—"I'll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA," Biden said at the time—only to learn they wouldn't be able to move that successfully through the Iraqi parliament. 

Meanwhile, in an interview with Reuters published Wednesday, Sudani reiterated that he means to get the U.S. out—but he's taking an Augustinian path to the departure. "Let's agree on a time frame (for the coalition's exit) that is, honestly, quick, so that they don't remain long and the attacks keep happening," he said. But Sudani also emphasized an orderly "process of understanding and dialogue" that would "balance" and "reorganize" the relationship with the U.S., rather than an ultimatum and a date certain for departure. 

You can read that multiple ways. I read it as Sudani trying to figure out which direction the political winds are blowing the strongest. My suspicion is that the most immediate impact of his rejection of the January 4 drone strike is to make U.S. commanders think twice before responding to militia attacks on the bases they use, for fear of forcing Sudani's hand. That makes it a dangerous time for the U.S. to be in Iraq, particularly as the Israelis continue their assault on Gaza. Unless, I suppose, the State Department official quoted above is right that Sudani can use a slow U.S. departure to get the militias to stop attacking the bases in Iraq and Syria that U.S. troops use. 

While this might not make for neat editions of newsletters, the emanations from Gaza mean that the Americans and the Iraqis face fluid, contingent and volatile circumstances in managing their relationship, not ones that make confident predictions sensible. 

"Despite his own preferences, Sudani has instead been forced to react to the escalating military engagements on Iraqi soil, particularly the January 4th U.S. strike in Baghdad. The location and nature of that strike has created real political pressure on the prime minister. The U.S. put Iraq in an incredibly difficult position and Sudani cannot simply ignore those domestic pressures," says Michael Hanna, U.S. Program Director at the International Crisis Group.

"Of course," Hanna continues, "other indications suggest that he personally doesn’t want to see the U.S. leave, and he is joined in that sentiment by the Kurds, most Sunnis and other Shia who are outside of the Hashd. But the armed groups have a say now in how events proceed and can force the issue further through their own military responses, which could deepen escalatory pressures, both military and political."

BEFORE HIS SHOCKING SECRETIVE HOSPITALIZATIONS, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed off on killing Abu Taqwa, the PMF official in the Jan. 4 drone strike that jeopardized the future of the U.S. residual force in Iraq. You might have thought that this fateful assassination, in Baghdad, would have been made while Austin had either delegated his authorities to Deputy Kath Hicks or, um, was on medication. 

But according to Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder's Monday briefing about Austin's hospitalization, Austin and President Biden 'preapproved that strike" and Gen. Eric Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command, "had the authority to take the strike when he felt that it was appropriate to do so." I've put in for a clarification about whether Austin and Biden preapproved the strike occurring in Baghdad or whether Kurilla did so wherever Abu Taqwa happened to present CENTCOM with an opportunity. Should I get a clarification, I'll publish it. Thus far the Pentagon is denying me "due to operational security concerns." 

The implication of the question is whether the president and the secretary of defense deliberately ordered a drone strike in the Iraqi capital or whether they thought they were ordering one on the periphery of U.S.-used bases far from Baghdad. Both are imperial decisions, but the former speaks to a willingness to jeopardize the U.S.-Iraqi relationship in pursuit of killing this guy whose name the people who killed him will forget next week. 

After writing many inside-the-Pentagon pieces—for about two years I was WIRED's Pentagon correspondent, working out of the Pentagon press bullpen; the Pentagon was functionally my office and I don't recommend it—I now have a higher threshold than I used to for writing on the Building's internecine operations. Austin's decision not to tell the White House or his deputy that he was hospitalized, in the intensive care unit, clears that bar easily. According to Ryder's timeline, Ryder knew Austin was hospitalized on January 2—but Hicks, who had "certain authorities of the Secretary of Defense" transferred to her, didn't know until January 4, the day of the strike, to say nothing of Biden! This, at a time when an escalating war in the Middle East has U.S. forces under attack in Iraq and Syria and risking a naval confrontation in the Red Sea! 

Prostate cancer is very serious. My mother died from cancer. I wish Austin the best for a full recovery. But as my friend Nancy Youssef writes at the Wall Street Journal, his judgment is now in question. It's irresponsible for the secretary of defense to conceal an incapacitating medical issue from the president (and from the deputy to whom he delegated his powers, who may not have expected to function as the secretary for an extended period, as Ryder described that delegation as occurring routinely, as in a travel-related comms blackout). Austin's error is egregious, especially considering how unforced and easily remediable it was. 

Concealing it from the public, however, is frankly a habit within the broader Pentagon apparatus, so Austin can't be solely on the hook for that. Not until Tuesday afternoon did the Pentagon reveal the cancer diagnosis, treatment and the complication from treatment (a UTI) that prompted Austin's January 1 re-hospitalization. (As we were editing this edition, the Pentagon informed reporters that Austin remains in the hospital, ten days later.) The GOP chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mike Rogers of Alabama, has opened an investigation into Austin's behavior concerning his hospitalization. Whether it does or doesn't devolve into a clownshow, this is a highly legitimate thing for the committee to investigate. 

Biden isn't going to replace Austin in election year. (Austin's tenure at the Pentagon isn't going to be anything motivating anyone's voting behavior, but a Senate confirmation is a venue for a partisan fight that can weaken the president, and accordingly something Biden surely prefers to avoid.) Austin didn't offer his resignation. 

But now Austin has made it so that you don't know if it's worse for him to be at the helm or not at the helm during a steadily escalating crisis guaranteed to stretch into 2024. Is this someone you feel confident about making recommendations and decisions in the coming weeks about launching military operations against the Houthis in Yemen? Or signing off on potentially-escalatory strikes against Iranian proxy militias in Syria or Iraq? 

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