US-Iran geopolitical challenges and a dysfunctional Iraqi government mean the country is teetering on a precarious edge.

More than seven years after it intervened militarily to push back Daesh and prop up its client state in Iraq, the United States officially announced this month that it has ended its combat mission in the country it tore apart with war and corruption. 

While the Iraqi government has trumpeted this in a vain attempt to appear sovereign, the reality is that American troops remain in Iraq and will almost certainly be a flashpoint for tensions with Iran-backed militant groups, particularly as the nuclear negotiations with Tehran flounder and each side looks for leverage against the other.

As a result of these geopolitical considerations, as well as the US and Iran fostering militia rule, constant military and political interventions, and domestic politics in a state of perpetual chaos and flux, the formalities of US involvement may have changed, but it is likely that this is the end of one chapter of violent conflict in Iraq and the beginning of another.

A history of US interventionism

The end of this combat mission is the second such time in less than two decades that the United States has announced a military disengagement from Iraq. The first was, of course, the 2003 invasion orchestrated by former President George W Bush and his partner in crime, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Under the Barack Obama administration, the US formally ended (at least on paper) more than eight years of invasion and occupation in late 2011. However, this was not to last, as the sectarian system Washington intentionally left in its wake led to the increased despotism of men like Shia Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who Iraqi lawmakers directly linked to the rise of Daesh.

By June 2014, Obama deployed his military to conduct extensive airstrikes in Iraq against Daesh which had – alongside other Iraqi militants they later betrayed – conquered a third of the fragile country in a matter of months and were now threatening both the federal capital in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in Erbil.

The US intervention was coordinated with its regional nemesis Iran, which also had a vested interest in keeping the Iraqi state alive, if only on life support. The American “Great Satan” provided close air support to Iran’s sectarian militias of the “Great Imam” and eventually managed to defeat Daesh culminating in the recapture of Mosul in 2017. The irony almost writes itself.

Since then, the US maintained its troops on a combat footing using the justification that Daesh still needed to be fought. The American military presence in Iraq, in conjunction with the rise of former President Donald Trump and regional geopolitical disputes relating to Iran’s nuclear programme, caused Iraq to serve as a flashpoint between Washington and Tehran.

To pressure the Trump administration into returning to the nuclear deal it abandoned in 2018, Iran used its Iraqi Shia proxies to attack US interests. This escalation led to the storming of the US embassy as 2019 closed out, an action that enraged Trump to such a degree that he ordered the unprecedented measure of assassinating Major General Qasem Soleimani by drone strike. 

Soleimani was not only the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, but also Iran’s point man for its regional ambitions for decades. His death sent shockwaves not only through Iran, but also through the patronage networks of Shia militias and politicians he had cultivated in the post-Saddam era.

While Soleimani’s death represented a grievous blow to Iran, this did not stop Shia militant attacks against American targets even after incumbent President Joe Biden took office with the promise of returning to the nuclear accords. Shia militants have demanded US troops evacuate Iraq by the end of the year or else face war.

It was in light of this ultimatum, combined with increasing American isolationism and recalibration towards China and the Pacific that the joint US-Iraqi strategic dialogue took place earlier this year, and set yet another “final” timetable for an end to US operations by December 31, 2021. 

However, while formal combat operations have ended, America’s military presence in Iraq has merely shifted posture from kinetic operations to one of “advising, assisting and enabling” the Iraqi military, as recently confirmed by Biden’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator, Brett McGurk.

Clearly, this falls short of what was expected by Iran and its militias and, if the “empty shell” nuclear deal currently being renegotiated falls through, there is a high possibility that Tehran will resume its proxy attacks against Washington’s interests, including the troops that remain in Iraq.

US military adventurism a curse on Iraq

While the geopolitical effects of American interventionism in the Middle East are clear to see, it is the domestic effects that often go underreported. This is particularly the case when state-society relations are examined, relations that have remained strained and fraught for two decades. 

Domestically, Iraq has had a fragile political system ever since the 2003 invasion. While the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was oppressive, it still commanded a certain level of respect as it was viewed as indigenous.

In contemporary Iraq, however, democracy has become a byword for corruption, mismanagement, and subservience to foreign powers and their whims. Iraq has consistently ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world. This corruption has led to violence, entire ministries being pumped for money by patronage networks, and incessant problems with water and power supplies.

Baghdad is also powerless to prevent foreign powers from using it as a plaything, and does nothing apart from issuing occasional statements of discontent. This inability to monopolise and control violence within its own borders – one of the fundamental definitions of a state – has led to Iraqis losing faith in their government. A lack of faith in the capabilities of government due to corruption and lack of sovereignty also inevitably leads to a lack of faith in the process by which these governments come to power.

While much was promised to Iraqis in terms of democracy finally granting them freedom from oppression, their lived reality since 2003 has been one of spiralling violence, insecurity, a lack of prosperity, and the perception that foreign powers decide who sits in the driving seat, irrespective of what they vote for. The last election itself is being placed in doubt by the losing parties seeking to declare the vote fraudulent.

Similar to Afghanistan, another US experiment, Iraq is on a cliff edge and the slightest instability could send it hurtling into the abyss from a dysfunctional democracy into a full-blown civil war. If Washington fully disengages, and if the US decides to confront Iran militarily, then the two main pillars supporting this vacuous enterprise will disintegrate and will come crashing down in an orgy of violence. Once again, it will be regular Iraqis who pay the price for a tragedy they had nothing to do with.

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