Following an April 2021 round of talks held via teleconference, the Iraqi government and the U.S. administration were all set for a fourth and final round of their "strategic dialogue", which was held on the sidelines of a visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazemi to the U.S. in late July 2021. Al-Kazemi's invitation to visit Washington D.C., came early after Joe Biden was elected president. Al-Kazemi and his team were in constant contact with U.S. administration officials, in particular Brett McGurk, the U.S. National Security Council's coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, who previously served as the U.S. envoy to the international coalition against ISIS, and as the U.S. special envoy for Iraq.
Prior to that, Brett McGurk visited Baghdad in mid-July to prepare for Al-Kazemi's visit to Washington, during which he laid the foundation for the proposed new formula regulating the security relationship between the two countries under a pledge that the United States will withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the end of this year. After his meeting with McGurk, and amid an escalation between Iraqi factions and U.S. forces, Al-Kazemi spoke with the leaders of main Shiite blocs and told them that he is close to extracting a U.S. pledge to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq by the end of this year, and, at the same time, asked them to pressure the armed factions to stop their attacks on bases where U.S. forces are deployed. As the intensity of attacks receded, it seems that the factions have agreed to a truce, pending the results of the fourth round of the U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue.
Are we about to see the end of the combat role of U.S. forces in Iraq?
This round of dialogue got underway before Al-Kazemi arrived in Washington with an official session chaired by the foreign ministers of the two countries, during which the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Fouad Hussein, stated that Iraq still needs U.S. support in the war against ISIS, which prompted some leaders and spokespeople for the armed factions to issue statements condemning Hussein's remarks, considering them an extension of the position adopted by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The factions, through the "Coordination Committee of the Iraqi Resistance Factions", escalated their threats and demands, and became focused on the necessity of ending the U.S. presence completely, so that it is not limited to combat forces, but also includes advisors and trainers. What the factions fear is that there will be no seriousness in withdrawing the U.S. forces and that what Washington and the Al-Kazemi government are seeking is to content themselves with changing the description of these forces from “combat” to advisers and trainers.
Before traveling to Washington, Al-Kazemi gave statements to the Associated Press in which he stressed that Iraq no longer needs foreign combat forces, but rather advisory and training support only. When Al-Kazemi met with Biden, the latter stated that the combat role of U.S. forces in Iraq would end by the end of the year. But during a press conference he held with Al-Kazemi before their closed meeting, it was noted that Biden was carrying a piece of paper with two notes, the first is that the United States is ready to respond to the attacks, and the second is that Iran should consider curbing those attacks. Analyzes varied as to whether Biden had intentionally disclosed these points, or that it was unintentional. But in any case, it was clear that he had discussed the issue with Al-Kazemi and asked for more effort to stop the attacks in return for the American pledge.
A joint statement was issued after the fourth round of the strategic dialogue, which stated in its English version that "there will be no U.S. forces with a combat role in Iraq by December 31, 2021. " On the other hand, the Arabic version of the statement published on the website of the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicated that "there will be no presence of U.S. combat forces in Iraq by December 31, 2021." Although the two versions of the statement indicated that the role of the U.S. forces will shift entirely to an advisory role and to providing training support to Iraqi forces, the difference in description between "combat forces" and "forces with a combat role" reflects a problem facing the Iraqi government. On the one hand, it seeks to convince hardline actors that the U.S. combat presence has ended, but on the other hand, it realizes the fact that the American side considers all military forces, even those with an advisory role, to be combat forces, and that what changes is the characterization of their role so that they do not assume a combat role. This discrepancy is likely to cause controversy about the seriousness of the agreement, and whether it will result in any actual change on the ground, or if it is nothing more than a verbal manipulation and a change in the description of U.S. forces.
Reactions of Shiite actors
After the news of a U.S. pledge to end the presence of combat forces in Iraq by the end of the year (which is a short timetable compared to what the Shiite actors were expecting), reactions came in support of the Iraqi government's success in extracting the American pledge. It was started by Muqtada al-Sadr, who broke his silence - as expected - to thank the Iraqi national resistance (a distinction that was repeated in the Sadrist discourse alluding to the existence of a non-national resistance), and Al-Kazemi for his efforts, calling on the Iraqi security forces to "remove the specter of terrorism, violence, intruders, and pretenders of resistance." The President of the Republic and the Speaker of Parliament also issued statements welcoming the agreement.
The "Al-Fateh" coalition issued a statement in which it welcomed "the Iraqi negotiator's national achievement by agreeing to the complete exit of combat forces at the end of this year," calling on "relevant officials in the Iraqi state to follow up on the implementation of what was agreed upon in a practical way." Despite the importance of the "Al-Fateh" alliance welcoming this step, as it is the party closest to the armed factions, reports indicated objections from some of the parties that are members of this alliance, specifically Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq. These parties saw that Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the coalition and head of the "Badr Organization", hastened to welcome the agreement, even though there are doubts about the seriousness of the American withdrawal. If the Iraqi government succeeds in persuading "Badr" to continue supporting its position, this will deepen the division in the pro-Iran camp.
According to reports, the armed factions held a meeting to take a position on the agreement, and that there were differences over the issue. On the one hand, there are those who prefer calm at this stage in order to determine how serious the American pledge is and to talk with the Iranians and elicit their position, while on the other hand, there are those who reject the agreement altogether and consider it a mere manipulation of words and does not suggest a real intention to withdraw. It is believed that Abu Hussein al-Hamidawi, the Secretary-General of Kata'ib Hezbollah, who is known for his extremism, is at the fore in the second group, and even threatened that each party would go its own way in the event that a joint agreement was not reached with the rest of the factions.
However, the so-called "Coordinating Committee of the Iraqi Resistance Factions" issued a statement on July 28 that strongly cast doubt on the American pledge. The committee said that the joint statement "is open to many interpretations and carries a lot of ambiguity and deception... and we are very convinced that there is a misrepresentation of terms and titles only to procrastinate and prolong the American hegemony and presence." After the statement details what it considers ambiguous points that raise doubts about the agreement, it says: "The resistance will remain fully prepared until the real withdrawal, and it will have its own action and position, which it will not hesitate to take if the withdrawal has turned out to be a formality." The statement adds: "Any foreign aircraft in the Iraqi airspace will be considered hostile and will be dealt with in a way that makes regret for their stay the least they feel for their lies and deception.”
This statement appears ambiguous in itself because it does not clarify whether the factions will continue their attacks or refrain from doing so, which may also reflect their disagreement on the next step. This difference was evident in a tweet by Abu Ala' al-Wala’i, the leader of "Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada", in which he said: "The resistance operations will continue until the occupier is forced to leave humiliated." Indeed, on July 29th, there was a fresh Katyusha attack on the Green Zone, which caused material damage to a house. This attack in itself reflects divisions and perhaps maneuvers within the "axis of resistance." Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, stated that the resistance at this stage does not want to target the embassy, and if it does, it will use precision weapons and not primitive Katyusha rockets. Abu Ali al-Askari also said that the resistance will not target embassies. However, these primitive missiles are being used again in what appears to be a challenge not only to the government but also to large factions such as Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada. By the end of July, it was reported that Muhammad Kawtharani, a leader in Lebanon's "Hezbollah" and the man responsible for Iraqi affairs in the party, had visited Iraq to urge the factions to calm down and accept the agreement announced in Washington.
Al-Kazemi will have to invest the support announced by the main Shiite parties for the results of his recent visit to Washington in a way that allows him to isolate the extremist factions and undermine the justifications they use for their continued attacks. But his delay in doing so may allow the factions to impose their narrative, take the initiative, and blackmail the other parties on the pretext that there is no tangible evidence of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
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