US commander: Drawdown in Iraq starts this month, levels to drop by nearly half

Will the second withdrawal from Iraq find more success than the first — or will Sunnis and Kurds have to gird themselves for a rematch against ISIS? Everyone will soon find out, the top US commander announced today. Force levels will drop by nearly half this month as troops withdraw from the theater, to fulfill a promise Donald Trump made last month to remove all US troops as soon as possible.

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said the remainder — around 3000 troops — will work on assisting Iraq in “rooting out the final remnants” of ISIS:

The United States is cutting troop levels in Iraq roughly in half, to 3,000 forces, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said Wednesday, in a long-expected move that will help fulfill President Trump’s goal of reducing the Pentagon’s overseas deployments.

The decision to reduce the 5,200 troops now in Iraq comes three weeks after Mr. Trump met with Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister, in Washington, in part to finalize details of the drawdown, which will happen this month.

“This reduced footprint allows us to continue advising and assisting our Iraqi partners in rooting out the final remnants of ISIS in Iraq and ensuring its enduring defeat,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, said in remarks in Iraq on Wednesday. …

“This decision is due to our confidence in the Iraqi security forces’ increased ability to operate independently,” General McKenzie said.

That’s not quite the reason, although it certainly sounds good. It’s the same thing that Barack Obama claimed in 2011 when pulling out the last of the US troops in Iraq, and it didn’t take very long to find out that the Iraqi army — and its government — was wholly unprepared to maintain its own security.

The government has since improved somewhat, without Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarianism souring relations between the majority Shi’a and the Sunnis and Kurds. However, the Iraqi army still turned out to be woefully insufficient in the fight against ISIS, and the current government had to rely on Shi’ite militias that owed more allegiance to Tehran than Baghdad. Has that situation changed enough to preclude Iranian hegemony over Iraqi security? That seems doubtful.

Still, we probably don’t have much of a choice. Our strike on Qassem Soleimani likely accelerated our exit from Iraq whether Trump was inclined to leave or not. The Iraqi parliament made that clear enough:

The presence of US troops has also become a major issue in Iraq since the US killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad in January.

Days later, the Iraqi parliament passed a bill directing the government to end operations by foreign forces on Iraqi soil, although that has not yet been implemented.

The US has also accused Iran-backed Iraqi militias of stepping up rocket attacks on bases housing its forces since then, including one in March that killed two Americans and one British soldier.

Iraqis understandably don’t want to host a US-Iran shootout. They can’t get rid of Iran, but they can push the US out, even if it might cost them another civil war in the end to do so. The Sunnis in western Iraq will not take well to Shi’ite dominance, especially directed by Tehran, which was exactly the dynamic nine years ago that allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to metastasize into ISIS. The Kurds won’t like it much either, and their restiveness and desire for independence will likely flare up again, unless the government in Baghdad has become much more expert in dealing with sectarian issues. Has anyone seen significant evidence of this?

It’s very possible that this will be another short goodbye rather than a permanent end to US involvement. It will, however, allow yet another American president to claim “mission accomplished” in Iraq. At least this time, it will only be making a virtue out of necessity, as we’re more or less being politely kicked out.

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