Impacts of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq

8 December 2021

The pending withdrawal of U.S. military from Iraq, on 31 Dec 2021, may dramatically change the landscape of hostilities in the region.

Just as Israel has targeted Iranian-related sites in Syria (including a few days ago), there are indications that Israel may also target such sites in Iraq if it too becomes controlled by Iranian militias after the U.S withdraws on Dec 31 as announced.

Acknowledging the Israeli attacks on targets in Iraq some years ago, which angered Washington, Dr. Mordechai Kedar suggests that "after the U.S. withdrawal, Washington may give Israel a free hand to perform strikes against Iranian related targets in Iraq."

"With the limited number of U.S. military in Iraq, Israel will have greater freedom to attack without the risk of harming Americans" says Dr. Kedar, a senior Israeli expert on middle eastern issues.

He adds that in spite of the fact that pro-Iranian political groups failed in the recent Iraq elections, the Iranian influence in Iraq by their militias has not been reduced. "They actually control big parts of Iraq" Kedar asserts.

According to a paper written by two senior researchers from the Israel Institute for National Security Studies, Israel has been suspected for some attacks in Iran. Orit Perlov and Udi Dekel wrote in 2019 that “There have been several reports in recent months that Iran is building an array of ballistic missiles aimed at Israel in Iraq. This choice of venue follows repeated Israeli attacks on Iranian military infrastructure in Syria, which have disrupted (albeit not entirely) Iran’s efforts to consolidate its power in the country.

"According to various reports, in the last two months, weapons depots belonging to the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi Shiite militia (Popular Mobilization Forces – PMF) have been attacked in Iraq. Iranian missiles were stored in the weapons depots, and infrastructure for assembling advanced weapons was built there. A strike on an ammunition cache near Balad air base in the Salah ad Din Governorate (north of Baghdad) on August 20, 2019 was attributed to Israel, and was the fourth in a series of attacks and explosions at bases held by the PMF – all in the Baghdad region, or neighbouring provinces. It followed attacks at Amerli base on July 19; Camp Ashraf in Diyala Governorate on July 28; and the Saqr military base in the Dura neighbourhood of southern Baghdad on August 12."

Iraq is preparing for 31 December 2021 despite rumours that the withdrawal could be postponed by several months.

"The departure date of the fighting forces (USA) on December 31 is fixed and there is no change," General Tahsin al-Hafaji, a spokesman for the Joint Operations Command, told the Iraqi news agency.

In July, U.S. and Iraqi leaders agreed that most U.S. troops would leave before the end of the year.

Some 2,500 American troops are fighting in Iraq as part of the Islamic State coalition. An unknown number of troops will remain into 2023 to advise and train the Iraqi army, and the U.S. will continue to cooperate with the Iraqi army in training, armaments, intelligence and counterterrorism, al-Hafaji added.

The United States will also continue to participate in an air strike in Iraq as part of the international coalition to defeat the Islamic State.

Maj. General (Ret.) Amos Gilead said Iran sees Iraq as another weak county, like Syria and Lebanon, that its proxies can control." There is no doubt that Iran will establish bases in Iraq, and that will effect the overall threat posed by Teheran."

Gilead served in many high ranking positions in the Israeli defence forces (IDF), among them as Head of the Military Intelligence Research Division and Responsible for the Overall National Intelligence Assessment.

Arie Egozi is a defence analyst based in Tel Aviv.