When Barack Obama implemented George W. Bush’s agreement to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, most Americans likely concluded that Washington’s disastrous intervention had come to an end. However, the administration reintroduced combat forces to Iraq and sent troops to Syria when ISIS launched its military offensive in 2013-2014 against those countries. Approximately 2500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq and at least 900 in Syria. Washington’s conflict still simmers in those countries against radical Islamists, especially in Syria.
The United States has responded to attacks from hostile factions, including the remnants of ISIS and militias affiliated with Iran, by launching deadly airstrikes. Although most of the strikes have been directed at targets in Syria, increasingly Iraq has also become an arena for renewed conflict. Such episodes have created tensions between Washington and the Iraqi government, which is nominally a U.S. ally.
When the war between Israel and Hamas erupted on October 7, 2023, the fighting between U.S. forces and pro-Iranian militias soared. U.S. troops employed in Iraq and Syria have been attacked at least 100 times. Tensions between the Biden administration and the Iraqi government also have witnessed a dramatic escalation. The increasingly awkward relationship between Baghdad and Washington is highlighted by the role that the pro-Iranian Hezbollah brigades play. The brigades are prominent targets of U.S. airstrikes, but they are also part of the Popular Mobilization Force within Iraq’s military. U.S. strikes on November 21 reportedly killed eight Popular Mobilization fighters.
The Biden administration has launched virtually all of those attacks without the permission of the Iraqi government. Typically, U.S. officials don’t even consult their Iraqi counterparts. Iraq’s complaints are growing more frequent and angrier. Following one set of U.S. attacks, officials in Baghdad charged that the raids had deliberately “targeted” Iraqi military (Popular Mobilization) sites. The Iraqi government spokesman added that the raids “resulted in the death of one service member and the injury of 18 others including civilians.” The Baghdad government was similarly upset about an earlier raid and warned that such hostile acts run “counter to the pursuit of enduring mutual interests” and contradicted “the declared intention of the American side to enhance relations with Iraq.”
U.S. officials spurned such complaints. “We will always protect our forces” the head of U.S. Central Command stated bluntly. Such disdain for Iraqi government objections has existed since the U.S. first redeployed combat personnel to Iraq against ISIS. Washington’s arrogant attitude was always counterproductive, but it is creating heightened tensions as the number of U.S. strikes on Iraqi territory have mounted since the onset of the Israeli-Hamas war.
U.S. leaders have been even more scornful of similar Syrian complaints about unauthorized attacks on militant outposts in that country. Indeed, such dismissive responses by U.S. officials have existed for years. Washington has either ignored or rejected repeated demands from Syria’s government that all U.S. forces be withdrawn. Such contempt for the sovereignty of countries in the region has become a routine feature of Washington’s Middle East policy.
That stance with respect to Syria is unsurprising since the United States has tried to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad for years. By contrast, Washington publicly insists that Iraq is a valued U.S. ally. Despite that official position, U.S. leaders have repeatedly bullied Iraq whenever officials in Baghdad oppose U.S. initiatives against pro-Iranian factions.
An especially ugly incident took place in January 2020 when Donald Trump’s administration assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad. The episode was a brazen violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. Carrying out the assassination on Iraqi territory when Soleimani was there at the invitation of Prime Minister Adel Abdull Mahdi was especially contemptuous. The killing of Soleimani (along with two influential Iraqi militia leaders) led Iraq’s parliament to pass a resolution calling on Mahdi to expel U.S. forces stationed in the country, and he promptly began to prepare legislation to implement that goal.
Trump’s reaction to the prospect that Baghdad might order U.S. troops to leave was to threaten America’s supposed ally with harsh economic sanctions if it dared to take that step. As Trump put it, “we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever.”
Over the following days, it became apparent that compelling Iraq to continue hosting U.S. forces was official administration policy. Senior officials from the Treasury Department and other agencies began drafting specific sanctions that could be imposed. Washington explicitly warned the Iraqi government that it could lose access to its account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Such a freeze would amount to financial strangulation of the country’s already fragile economy.
U.S. treatment of Baghdad seemed utterly contemptuous. When Mahdi asked the administration to “prepare a mechanism” for the exit of American forces and commence negotiations towards that transition, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flatly refused. Indeed, the State Department’s statement made it clear that there would be no such discussions: “At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how to best recommit to our strategic partnership – not to discuss troop withdrawal.”
Responding to pervasive, domestic anger about U.S. air and drone attacks on targets inside Iraq, current Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani is trying to succeed where Mahdi failed. However, Biden seems no more receptive to a U.S. military withdrawal than Trump did in 2020. Iraq’s wishes don’t seem to matter. Washington continues to believe that Baghdad should be content with playing the role of an obedient U.S. strategic pawn.
Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).