U.S. Military Presence in Iraq Could Be Unexpected Casualty of Israel's War on Gaza

Oh, what, we can't launch a drone strike on Baghdad anymore??? Didn't anyone tell you people we're here to help you??? 

U.S. Military Presence in Iraq Could Be Unexpected Casualty of Israel's War on Gaza
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani. State Department photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Edited by Sam Thielman

IF YOU TOLD ME RIGHT AFTER OCT. 7 that a ripple effect of Israel's decimation of Gaza would be the potential end of the residual U.S. military force in Iraq, I wouldn't have believed it, but here we are. 

FOREVER WARS' Thursday edition briefly mentioned the extreme disapproval that Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia al-Sudani expressed to that day's lethal U.S. drone strike in Baghdad. This is all at the very early stages, but after we published, al-Sudani announced his intention to do something about it.

"We are in the process of setting the date for the start of the dialogue through the bilateral committee that was formed to determine the arrangements for the end of this presence, and it is a commitment that the government will not back down from, and will not neglect anything that would complete national sovereignty over the land, sky, and waters of Iraq," al-Sudani said in a speech on Friday

Thursday's U.S. strike killed a man known as Abu Taqwa, whom the Pentagon identified as a leader in the Iran-backed militia Harakat al-Nujaba. Left unmentioned by the Pentagon was that Abu Taqwa was also the deputy head of Baghdad operations for the quasi-official Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—a collection of Shiite armed cadres, also connected to the Iranians, assembled as ground combatants for the 2014-17 war against ISIS. Years later, the PMF are effectively a legitimized coalition of militias and Iran's answer to the return of the U.S. to Iraq.

That meant the U.S. killed someone who was involved, however liminally, in the Iraqi security apparatus, even if it's the part that the U.S. does not consider legitimate. ("We condemn the attacks targeting our security forces, which go beyond the spirit and letter of the mandate that created the international coalition," al-Sudani said Friday.) It is not the first time the U.S. has done this. The last time the U.S. launched a drone strike in Baghdad, in January 2020, it killed not only Iran's external-security potentate, kingpin Qassem Soleimani, but Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the PMF's operational commander

When I say the Pentagon left Abu Taqwa's PMF affiliation unmentioned, I'm being generous. Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the chief Pentagon spokesperson, was directly asked in his Thursday press conference if Abu Taqwa was PMF. First, Ryder dodged, reiterating that Harakat al-Nujaba is an Iranian proxy. When the reporter pressed him, Ryder said only, "I don't have an answer to that question." Whatever U.S. Central Command told Ryder, in my professional experience, it's highly likely they knew where Abu Taqwa was on the PMF org chart. 

The transcript of Ryder's press conference is worth reading. After announcing the strike, Ryder refused to say whether the U.S. informed the Iraqis of the strike before taking it. Then he spoke as if the drone strike couldn't have any impact on U.S. operations in Iraq. 

"Iraq is an important and valued partner," Ryder said. "Our forces are there at the invitation of the government of Iraq to help train and advise, in support of the Defeat ISIS mission. And so as we have been doing all along, we will continue to consult closely with the Iraqi government about the safety and security of U.S. forces." 

Ryder's perspective is one that I find common among senior U.S. military officials and some civilians concerning Iraq. While they wouldn't put it in these terms, it considers Iraq to possess no sovereignty that the U.S. is bound to respect should it contradict U.S. prerogatives. It's easy enough to understand how this perspective arose, given that the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, and built a security apparatus in its image to cement an enduring influence. (The performance of that apparatus is a different story.) Believing that its will ought to prevail in Iraq is the resting state of American policy, despite a whole lot of unhappy experience. After the January 2020 drone strike, the Iraqi parliament voted for the U.S. to leave. The State Department simply said nah. A simple way to summarize this policy, and the mindset that justifies it, is "imperialism." 

THE EXPERIENCE OF 2020 should create serious doubts about al-Sudani's ability to oust U.S. forces. It's entirely possible that President Biden's State Department will behave like Trump's in the face of what Washington would interpret as a regional victory for Iran. Remember that as vice president, Biden served as Iraq troubleshooter with the goal of keeping a residual force there past 2011. As president in 2021, he secured with al-Sudani's predecessor an enduring U.S. presence—this is what Ryder is referencing—predicated on an open-ended mission to backstop the Iraqi military against an ISIS resurgence. 

And incredibly, among the authorities Biden cited for the drone strike—through a letter he sent to Congress that the White House emailed reporters but I can't seem to find online—was the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force that is officially his policy to repeal. So he undermined his rationale for getting rid of the Iraq war authority, which is that it's outdated and unneeded, in pursuit of an assassination that carries the potential to end the U.S. presence and at a minimum has created a serious diplomatic complication between Washington and Baghdad. Strategery at its finest. 

All these details shouldn't obscure the larger picture, which is that the potential loss of U.S. bases in Iraq are an unambiguous consequence of Biden's (bipartisan) decision to materially and diplomatically aid Israel's pitiless and frankly genocidal devastation of Gaza. None of this would be happening were the U.S. to exert its enormous influence to stop the Israeli war. The Houthi attacks on Red Sea commercial shipping and the 120-and-counting rocket, missile and drone assaults on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria are all measures to impose costs on the U.S. for facilitating the Gaza war. It was those latter attacks that funneled U.S. military logic into the reprisal strike in Baghdad against Abu Taqwa. Iranian strategy isn't yielding the result it wants—the end of the war in Gaza—but it's able to box the U.S. into no-win regional positions. 

Iran has its puppets in Iraq, but al-Sudani is not one of them. He has looked to western governments for investment and sought to balance Baghdad's relationships with Washington and Tehran. About three months after taking office, al-Sudani forthrightly endorsed the U.S. military presence in a January 2023 interview with the Wall Street Journal. The State Department readout of his last call with Secretary Antony Blinken, on Dec. 12, quotes al-Sudani calling the "Axis of Resistance" attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq "acts of terrorism." 

Accordingly, al-Sudani's turn away from a U.S. military presence he considers necessary is yet another reminder of how untenable the U.S.-backed Israeli sack of Gaza is. "We warned that the continuation of brutal practices in Gaza would have serious repercussions on the region and the world, and we are beginning to feel its effects today in many countries of the region," al-Sudani said in his Friday speech. What more will it take for the U.S. to listen?  

HAPPY WHITETEENTH, as I saw people on Bluesky describe the January 6 anniversary. I've been thinking lately about the current wave of 1/6 revision, and I suspect the roots of it lay in the unforced error of permitting those legislators who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election to remain in Congress rather than ousting them under the 14th Amendment's authorities to combat insurrectionism. I wrote a whole thing in the New York Times in 2021 about the insurrection's 9/11 patrimony that contains a short aside making that point. My friend, the legend Adam Serwer, has more to say about the 14th Amendment and the insurrection

WANT TO HEAR ME TALK ABOUT MY COMIC BOOK? My friend Elana Levin had me on for a deep dive into the just-concluded WALLER VS. WILDSTORM on their Graphic Policy Radio podcast. Make sure as well you preorder the gorgeous collected edition, out on Jan. 30, and/or purchase a set of all four issues signed by me through Bulletproof Comics, Brooklyn's finest comic shop!