US Withdrawal and Struggle for Influence in Iraq

Dr. Mustafa Abdel Aziz Moursi: US Withdrawal and Struggle for Influence in Iraq

  • 23 August 2011

Under the terms of the security agreement between Baghdad and Washington signed in November 2008, all of the roughly 47,000 US troops will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of this year, after nearly eight years of their presence in the country. The agreement stipulates that the withdrawal of these forces can be delayed only if an agreement to this effect is approved by two-thirds of the Iraqi parliament, which seems highly unlikely given the current deep-seated political divisions therein. However, concerned military leaders point out that Iraqi forces are not yet ready to take up security responsibilities after the withdrawal of the US troops, as they are short in terms of training and weaponry.

The Iraqi public and political forces largely oppose any extension for US military presence. In a meeting at the residence of the Iraqi president held on August 2, 2011, leaders of Iraq's political blocs agreed to authorize Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to negotiate a deal with the US to keep some of its troops in Iraq for the purpose of training after the agreed date of withdrawal.  This is the most likely outcome, as has already been indicated by Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshyar Zebari on July 28, 2011. Such an arrangement may come in the form of a memorandum of understanding signed by Ministries of Defense in the two countries.

However, US withdrawal will create a strategic vacuum in Iraq, which various international and regional powers will try to fill in. This will likely lead to rivalry between contending powers over their share in oil, economy (reconstruction projects), security and military spheres, which could turn Iraq into a huge magnet for regional and international rivalry. China, Iraq’s neighboring states—and of course the US —would be among these major powers.

As for the US, the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq would not mean that it would no longer protect its influence and vital interests in Iraq, particularly its interest in oil.  Not surprisingly, the US wants to retain a token military presence in the country beyond the date of withdrawal in order to protect its interests, which some regional and international powers have already started to wrest from it. This explains former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ indication that the US is willing to retain its forces in Iraq after the specified date of final withdrawal in order to ensure security and to complete the training of Iraqi forces.

The successor of Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, has explicitly stated that his country will proceed with its plans to withdraw all its remaining troops from Iraq by the end of the year, with the exception of those US troops assigned with the mission of training Iraqi soldiers.

In fact, the United States wants to maintain some of its troops in Iraq for an extended period, and to establish its relations with the country in the same fashion as it did with vanquished powers of WWII. This will ensure a privileged position for Washington in protecting its interests in the Gulf. Washington has invested much of its military and economic resources to strengthen its foothold and promote its interests in Iraq, especially in the oil sector (Iraq has the world's second-largest oil reserves) and reconstruction process, and will seek to prevent entry of any other competing powers.  However, the US will face huge difficulties in this regard, as its current situation (in wake of growing national debt and declining international status) may not enable it to stop other powers' from accessing Iraq's riches. It is likely that the area of military equipment will remain almost exclusive to US-Iraqi relations, but there will be space for other emerging powers—notably China—in the economic and reconstruction spheres.

Before the invasion, Iraq was one of the major sources of oil to China (the world's second-largest oil consumer after the US). China launched several oil projects in Iraq before 2003, but the US-led invasion forced it to back away from Iraq and move to Iran to secure its oil needs. However, it may possibly resume its activities in Iraq after the US withdrawal, as energy security lies at the core of China's foreign relations and the Chinese demand for oil is still rising as a result of its economic expansion. China strikes a balance between its political and economic roles to ensure a steady flow of oil from the Middle East.

There are other regional powers that aspire to increase their roles and widen their interests in Iraq after the US withdrawal—such as Iran, Turkey and Israel. Perhaps, Iran will be one of the main beneficiaries of the US withdrawal, as it has been the biggest beneficiary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. It will try to fill as much of the strategic vacuum with its clout and it has long prepared itself for it. It has continued implementing its plan to expand its influence across Iraq, and has already established its presence in south of the country; strategically, militarily, politically and economically. In fact, Iranian forces have even occupied Iraq's Fakka oilfield and turned Basra into an Iranian backyard. Some sources suggest that Tehran is trying to strike a deal with Washington, wherein Iran would ensure safe exit for US troops from Iraq in lieu of US concessions on some regional issues of interest to Tehran, like Iranian nuclear program, Syrian crisis and Hezbollah. Perhaps, we still remember the convergence of Iranian and US interests in shaping the stage of “Iraq under occupation,” and the resulting implicit US recognition of the Iranian role. Thus, the two sides are not unlikely to negotiate on certain arrangements in Iraq after the withdrawal, in exchange for mutual concessions.

On the other hand, Turkey sees its national security as largely linked to what will happen in Iraq after the US withdrawal. It closely monitors potential developments there, particularly the situation of the Turkmen minority and Kirkuk issue, and it still fears the adverse impact of separatist tendencies of Iraqi Kurds on its own Kurdish minority. Previously, Turkey’s reservations toward the US scheme in Iraq kept it away from getting fully involved in it. Currently, it is in its interest to have a new stable and unified Iraq that is not based on any form of flexible federation that gives more autonomy to Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, from a realistic perspective, Ankara's relations with Iraqi Kurdistan region has witnessed significant improvement after the historic visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to Erbil in October 2009, and the opening of the Turkish Consulate General in it in March 2010, and visit of Massoud Barzani to Turkey in June 2010 in his capacity as president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Moreover, Turkey is the largest trade partner of the region, and the biggest investor in it, especially in the construction and oil sectors. The two sides work on developing cooperation between them in various other fields—including banking, agriculture and tourism. Through its interactions with the government of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, the Turkish government is also seeking to gain the cooperation of Iraqi Kurds in the most important security issue Ankara currently faces, which is countering the PKK operatives who use the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan as a sanctuary and a platform for launching attacks on Turkish territory.

In general, Turkey has the requisite economic capabilities and experience to boost its influence in Iraq after the US withdrawal. Some people consider the Turkish role as potential counterbalance to the growing Iranian influence in Iraq. In fact, the US withdrawal may possibly drive the Iraqi Kurds to cooperate more with Ankara.

According to a number of analysts, Israeli presence in the Iraqi Kurdistan region has been expanding since 2003, and has taken various forms—economic, political, military and intelligence. In the economic sphere, Israeli companies and investors are active in the oil sector in particular. Israeli businessmen have already succeeded in gaining several contracts from the Kurdistan Regional Government in oil and military installation sectors. Israelis, especially those of Kurdish origin, are actively buying real estate in the region. There are also various signs of Israeli intelligence activities in northern Iraq, which allow it to monitor Iranian nuclear, and missile programs as well as Syrian weapons programs. Military cooperation between Israel and the Iraqi Kurdistan region has taken the form of training for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and has provided them with weapons and modern military equipment, in addition to building military installation in the region.

But what about the highly desired Arab role! The completion of the US withdrawal by the end of this year will result in the absence of a major power that has worked to widen the rift between Iraq and the Arab region it belongs to, or will at least result in the weakening of its influence. This critical stage will witness a reshaping of the political map of Iraq; internally and externally. In light of this, there must be a new Arab approach towards Iraq in the upcoming stage of its history.

The overall Arab position towards Iraq in the earlier stages was significantly influenced by the state of inter-Arab relations, poor coordination and the adoption of conflicting Arab agenda on Iraq. The result of this was a weak Arab presence in Iraq compared to growing Iranian influence. Until now, there is a lack of minimum level of common Arab denominators for joint, effective Arab action in Iraq. In the meantime, the ‘Arab Spring’ has broken out to add more instability and poor coordination between Arab positions on various issues, notably the situation in Iraq after the US withdrawal. With continued absence of an integrated Arab vision to support Iraq at more than one level, we are afraid that the Arab world will pay a high price.

This Arab absence, both voluntary and involuntary, in the recent past has enabled other regional powers to fill this vacuum. These regional powers are now preparing themselves to expand the sphere of their influence after the withdrawal of US troops. Hence, Arab countries should be aware of the fact that the next stage represents a significant turning point in the future of Iraq after regaining full sovereignty over its territory. It is a stage that requires the activation the Arab role in order to accommodate Iraq, protect its Arabic identity, and support Iraqi national reconciliation.