Members of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force step on a makeshift US flag bearing a caricature of President Donald Trump during the funeral procession of Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (poster-L) , Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani (poster-R), and eight others in Baghdad on January 4, 2020. Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP

Iraq’s relations with the United States were in crisis on Monday, after US President Donald Trump threatened sanctions on Iraq even harsher than those Washington has imposed on Iran. 

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base [in Iraq]. It cost billions of dollars to build… We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” Trump told reporters on Sunday aboard Air Force One. 

Trump’s statement came in response to a vote by the Iraqi parliament to expel American troops.

“If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame,” said Trump.

The killing of Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani by an American strike in Baghdad on Thursday night has damaged relations between the two states to the point where US troops, allies in the fight against Islamic State, have become an unwanted presence.

Upon the request of Adil Abdul Mahdi, the acting prime minister, Iraq’s parliament held an extraordinary session on Sunday to vote on ending the presence of foreign troops in the country.

The decision mandates the Iraqi government to end the presence of foreign forces in the country and prevent them from using the land, waters and airspace for any reason.

The parliamentary session was attended by about 170 members of parliament. The rest of its 329 seats were empty. 

Kurdish parties and Sunni representatives boycotted the session, which was preceded by an implicit threat from Iran-backed militants against those who might reject the motion. 

Shiite MPs in the session chanted “Yes, Yes Soleimani,” and “No, No America.”

The decision issued by the parliament mandates the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs to submit an international complaint against the United States.

By Sunday night, the ministry announced it had submitted an official complaint to “both the President of the [UN] Security Council and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, through the Permanent Representation of the Republic of Iraq in New York concerning the US attacks on Iraqi military sites, and the assassination of high-level Iraqi and friendly military leaders on Iraqi soil,” according to a press release.

The US forces committed “a serious violation of Iraqi sovereignty and in violation of the conditions for the presence of US forces in Iraq. Iraq calls on the Security Council to condemn the bombing and assassinations,” it added.

French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called Abdul Mahdi on Sunday night to encourage him to allow time for consultations on the ousting foreign troops from Iraq, which the Iraqi PM responded to by asserting that officials are preparing a memo on the forthcoming legal measures to execute the parliament’s decision.

The spokesperson for the United States Department of State, Morgan Ortagus, responded to the Iraqi parliament decision by noting her country’s “disappointment.”

“We strongly urge Iraqi leaders to reconsider the importance of the ongoing economic and security relationship between the two countries and the continued presence of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS,” she said.

Shooting the messenger?

In his speech to the parliament, Abdul Mahdi declared that his government was unable to respond to the pressure exerted by the Trump administration, bent on including Iraq in an anti-Iran axis.

The acting prime minister, who was pushed to resign on October 25 in response to wide-scale demonstrations across 11 provinces, said that his government was being pressured by Washington to impose international sanctions on Iran.  

Baghdad has until now been able to secure waivers from the Trump administration allowing it to import critical natural gas and electricity supplies from Iran, which would otherwise be banned by Treasury sanctions. 

The current 120-day waiver expires mid-February.

Abdul Mahdi also attempted to defend his government from accusations that it had allowed angry demonstrators to enter Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone last week and temporarily breach the US embassy gates. He said that he and several other officials had threatened to resign if the sit-in – sparked by a deadly US strike against Iraqi paramilitaries – continued, implying that thanks to them, the demonstrators finally agreed to withdraw. 

In the wake of the embassy breach, Abdul Mahdi said that Trump in a phone call had requested Iraq’s assistance as a mediator. Soleimani, he continued, was visiting Baghdad with a response to a message from America’s ally Saudi Arabia. 

That claim has been greeted with skepticism, however, given the pressure Abdul Mahdi was under to justify the legitimacy of Soleimani’s visit.

Officials refused to respond to inquiries from Asia Times about the contents of the message purportedly destined for Saudi Arabia.

The PM noted that the embassy incident had actually prompted the US to increase the presence of its troops in Iraq and its control over Iraqi air space.

Stability shattered

Last week’s US airstrikes, which killed several of the leaders of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, followed by the assassinations of Muhandis and Soleimani, have not only shaken Iraq’s stability but opened the door for further dominance by Iran.

On an economic level, the airstrike on Baghdad airport on Friday night led to the suspension of several flights to Iraq by various aviation companies.

Several Arab and European countries have also warned their citizens against traveling to Iraq.

The situation also has oil companies wary of continuing their operations in the oil fields.

Iraq is entirely dependent on oil returns as its main source of financing.

The security situation does not look much better, as the US airstrikes have revived a number of militant factions that had frozen their activities for years, such as the Mahdi Army, loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

These militias fought the US Army following the 2003 occupation of Iraq and took part in its sectarian civil war from 2006 to 2008.

Sadr, who has massive influence in Shiite areas, has for his part called on armed factions inside and outside of Iraq to hold an immediate meeting to form what he called an “international resistance legion” to fight the US. The Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba militia soon declared it was accepting the call.

These armed factions face an existential threat from continued US airstrikes in Iraq, and they now are working to coordinate operations against US soldiers and diplomats on Iraqi soil.

Since Saturday night, Iraq’s armed factions launched several Katyusha rockets on Baghdad’s Green Zone which houses Western and Arab embassies and crucial government buildings.

As a result, the international alliance led by the United States declared it was halting its training and support of the Iraqi armed forces.

Divisions in Iraq

Not all Iraqi factions are in agreement over the exit of foreign troops. 

Kurdish and Sunni parties fear that Iran will bring Iraq under its total control if US forces exit the country.

A representative of Nineveh province in the Iraqi parliament told Asia Times on condition of anonymity: “What is happening is utter madness…I do not like the US; it is the reason for our devastation…But I do not want Iraq to be in the Iranian axis which would put us under international sanctions and give the [Iran-backed] armed militias control over the country.”

The MP emphasized that saying his name openly would put him at risk amid an increasingly aggressive attitude toward those refusing to oust foreign forces from the country. 

“The US army presence creates a balance to the Iranian influence in Iraq,” he explained.

Amid this extreme polarization, the Iraqi people – who have been protesting government corruption and the sectarian division of power since the beginning of October – seem bewildered by the accelerating pace of events.

The sit-in squares across 11 provinces that were witness to the deaths of about 500 demonstrators and wounding of some 20,000, now fear that the escalation could undermine their demands for political change.

The protesters thus chanted against both the US and Iran.

Iraqis fear an escalation could lead to a proxy war between the US and Iran on their land, undermining security and possibly leading to a collapse of the economy.

The fragile nature of the oil and import-dependent economy means that Iraq can’t afford to risk having the US impose sanctions.

“Everything will collapse…We can’t bear sanctions or participating in a new war…We have not yet recovered from the Islamic State phase and the destruction it had on the country,” the Nineveh representative said.

“Sunni and Kurdish politicians spoke to Shiite parties to take reasonable steps, but the storm and Iranian pressures on them means nobody is listening.”

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