New president, same problems.
American troops may have withdrawn from Iraq but its regional importance remains the same. The U.S. and the West are in a tug-of-war with Iran over Iraq’s future and despite the Iranians holding the upper hand for now, the United States still has a role to play.
It’s not a military role. But U.S. assistance could still save Iraq from becoming a completely failed state and easy pickings for Tehran. The Iraqis still possess the fifth-most oil reserves in the world and are strategically situated in the Middle East as it shares borders with Syria Jordan and Iran.
But the terrorist threat remains, despite America’s withdrawal. Yesterday in Baghdad, two suicide bombers killed 32 Iraqis with another 110 wounded. It was the first terror attack in the capital’s commercial district in three years. More ominously, the Islamic State has been fingered by the Iraqi military as being responsible.
Two suicide bombers detonated their vests when security forces pursued them through the busy Tayaran square market. The first claimed he was ill, causing a crowd to form around him before he detonated the bomb he wore, a security official told The Associated Press.
An interior ministry spokesman tweeted that the second bomber set off his device after people gathered around those dead and wounded from the first bombing.
Classic Islamic State tactics. ISIS had been pretty much destroyed by the Iraqi army with plenty of help from Americans — in 2017. But there are still pockets of resistance in the hardcore Sunni North. They have been attacking infrastructure, including the crippled electrical grid.
If not ISIS, who? The Shiite militias who targeted American forces are a possibility. But Iranian-led militias agreed to a cease-fire of sorts after several attacks brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war. Iran backed down and reined-in its fighters.
Joe Biden’s new secretary of defense appeared to promise not to abandon the Iraqis at this point.
The Trump administration reduced troop numbers in Iraq, but about 2,500 U.S. soldiers remain in the country. Incoming Defense Secretary General Lloyd Austin said in his confirmation hearing that he remains concerned about the threat ISIS poses inside Iraq and beyond.
“I support maintaining a small number of U.S. troops to carry out a limited mission focused on advising and assisting Iraqi counter-terrorism forces to deal with the continuing threat from ISIS,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Austin will continue sending special forces to Iraq to train the Iraqis in counterterrorism techniques, but beyond that, they can’t do much about ISIS terror threats.
Iraq will hold elections next October, pressured by mass demonstrations last year where 500 people lost their lives protesting against the government. But the elections hold out little hope that the radical divisions in Iraq can be healed. The nation will hold its first parliamentary elections under a district-based system, as opposed to the sectarian proportional representation elections that were held previously. It’s hoped that the new system will ease sectarian divisions and make the country more governable.
That remains to be seen.