To help Iraq in tackling Daesh, the US offered to move its troops to Iraq after the Syria pullout. But Washington faced an unprecedented denial from Baghdad.
US-Iraq diplomatic ties are facing an unease as the latter seems unwilling to host the American soldiers who are on their way out of northern Syria.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on October 21 that the US army would move from northern Syria to western Iraq, where it will fight Daesh and advise Iraqi forces.
In an apparent refusal, the Iraqi military two days later said that the US troops were only welcomed on their soil if it's a transit and not a permanent stay.
The country's ruling establishment, which is increasingly gravitating toward Iran, is also on board, with Iraq's prime minister saying on Wednesday that Baghdad was taking "all international legal measures" over the entry of US forces from neighbouring Syria.
Esper then said on the same day that the troops would eventually leave Iraq.
On the next day, Esper arrived in Baghdad on an unannounced visit to discuss disagreements over the US troops with his Iraqi counterparts and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
The meeting clarified that the transit period would be four weeks, as Iraqi Minister of Defence Najah al Shammari told AP following a meeting with Esper.
In Syria, the US has been supporting the YPG, the Syrian offshoot of PKK -- a group that both the US and Turkey list as a terrorist organisation. Tuesday’s tension between the US and Iraq came amid a Turkish operation that launched on October 9 to target YPG positions in Syria, secure a safe zone at its borders and ensure the safe return of refugees.
The fight against Daesh in Iraq
In Iraq, the territorial defeat of Daesh in 2017 didn’t mean the end of the group’s attacks. In November last year, Mosul was hit by a Daesh bomb for the first time since Abadi announced the victory over the group. The attacks, indicating a brutal comeback, were repeated this year -- from far-off deserts to suburban parts of the country and areas close to Baghdad.
In Syria, the US supported the YPG from 2014 to early October this year -- until the US president announced the withdrawal of troops. The US then adopted a mediator role after reaching an agreement with Turkey, which translated into Ankara putting its military operation on hold in northern Syria. As per the deal. The YPG-dominated SDF were asked to leave the areas that determine a safe zone charted out by Turkey.
In Iraq, the US supported the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that took the frontline of the battle against Daesh in the north. But in central Iraq, it has been mainly Hashd al Shaabi forces, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) founded in 2014, that backed the central Iraqi government, when the army was too weak to fight Daesh.
Five years in, the support they received from Iran made it more influential in Iraq’s military and saw its militias eventually fully integrated into the Iraqi army -- a concerning development for the US, Iran’s arch-enemy. The US has been increasingly insisting Baghdad take steps to curb Iranian influence in the country -- in its military, by dumping Iranian militias, and in the economy, by complying with US sanctions against Iran.
Iraq’s rejection of the permanent relocation of US troops came amid Baghdad’s struggle to maintain a balance between the two rivals -- by not rejecting US economic demands and meanwhile not dismissing Iran's influence in its military.
Risk of facing further protests
The country is also going through a political crisis as protests over unemployment, lack of public services and corruption took over Iraq on October 1, prompting a security backlash that killed 149 people and wounded 3,000.
Iraq’s government has promised reforms following the violent crackdown on protesters in an effort to prevent a further wave of protests.
The latest protests winding down now had grown organically after the government’s decision to remove Abdul Wahab al Saadi, who has been at the forefront of the fight against Daesh and the fight against corruption. But in the past, Muqtada al Sadr, a cleric who rebranded himself as an anti-sectarian leader who fights against corruption and foreign invasion, has been the main figure who encouraged Iraqis to take to the streets against the government.
Sadr declared his support for the latest wave of protests and has encouraged people to renew mass rallies on Friday, October 25.