Kadhimi Biden meet
US to end combat mission in Iraq by end of year, US president Joe Biden announced in a meeting with Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi last month Image Credit: AP

Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustapha Al Kadhimi reached an agreement with US President Joe Biden to end combat operations of the 2,500 American troops stationed in Iraq by next December. The agreement is being marketed as a major achievement for Iraqi premier, but it can serve as a double-edged sword.

Kadhimi needed it badly, however, after having made a series of promises to the Iraqi people, which he was unable to fulfil. One was curbing the influence of Iraqi-backed militias and monopolising arms in the hands of the Iraqi government.

After taking jabs against Kataeb Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Kadhimi was forced to climb down, facing tremendous resistance from Iran, Iran-backed political parties, and the militias themselves. They are arguing that the disarmament and demobilisation will lead to an Daesh comeback, accrediting themselves with dismantling its remains and expelling it from cities like Mosul.

Kadhimi also promised accountability for the 600 people killed by Iraqi security forces during what has come to be known as the October Revolution of 2019. That too has not been fulfilled, and not a single official has been held accountable for the young men who were shot on the streets of the capital two years ago.

Kadhimi realised that he had bit off more than he could chew, given that the security services are affiliated with the very same Iran-backed militias that he had promised to tame and disarm.

The October elections

The Iraqi premier also promised better services, but that has also not been forthcoming as power cuts remain chronic in Baghdad. The only two promises that he has been able to full through are the withdrawal of US forces, announced last July, and holding early parliamentary elections next October.

Those elections are currently in limbo, however, and might also get postponed after heavyweight Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr announced that his party, Sairoun, will boycott.

Sadr is the only Iraqi leader who can bring Kadhimi back to power after the elections, given that he controls the biggest parliamentary bloc in the current chamber (54 out of 329). He played an instrumental role at bringing Kadhimi to office back in mid-2020 and his say can make or break him in 2021. Sadr is the only Iraqi Shiite leader who although close to the Iranians, was neither created by Iran nor was he ever on Iranian payroll.

That gives him a certain margin to manoeuvre, unlike other heavyweights like Hadi al-Amiri, whose Fateh Alliance holds 48 seats, and ex-prime minister Haidar Abadi, whose Victory Alliance controls 42 seats.

These men would never approve a second term for Kadhimi, seeing him as both pro-American and ungrateful to the Shiite parties that brought him to power. His only chance, therefore, is for Sadr to join the elections and maintain his current bloc, or increase it. Otherwise, Iraq’s new parliament will probably go for a new prime minister next October.

Lessons from Afghanistan 2021

The Biden-Khadhimi agreement was expected to boost the premier’s image, but too has gone horribly wrong due to the latest developments in Afghanistan. That country is witnessing a US troop withdrawal. American troops entered both countries during the era of President George W. Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11, toppling the regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

But no sooner had American forces began to withdraw from Afghanistan earlier this summer than the Taliban started sweeping towns and villages across the country, overrunning them one after another. The capital of Kabul has also fallen to the Taliban, toppling the US-backed administration of President Ashraf Ghani.

All the money and training pumped by the Americans into Afghanistan for two solid decades have evaporated into thin air — a message heard loud and clear at the office of Mustapha Al Kadhimi in Baghdad.

If the Ghani administration can fall, then pretty much the same can happen to Iraq after US troops start complete their withdrawal next December. That might explain why President Biden was careful to tell reporters, after receiving Kadhimi at the Oval Office: “Our role in Iraq will be to continue to train, to assist, to help, and to deal with Daesh as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.”

That single statement was made to assure Iraqis that the Americans are going to keep some forces in Iraq, in an advisory capacity, to avoid repeating the Afghanistan scenario of 2021.

If they are not in combat mission, however, then there is little they can do to prevent Iraqi militias from taking the law into their own hands — like what’s happening now in Afghanistan — hollowing out the agreement from its entire substance and bringing Kadhimi back to Square One.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.