BAGHDAD – A new watchtower rose over an American military base in northern Iraq, and cranes lifted hefty slabs of concrete to reinforce the barricades in beefed-up protections. The danger, soldiers there said, came not from the constellation of militant sleeper cells embedded in the landscape but further afield in Iran.
U.S. forces in Iraq have been on guard for retaliation by Iran or its Shiite militias allies since the U.S. killed Iran’s top general in Iraq with an airstrike in Baghdad last month. The Jan. 3 strike also fueled a wave of outrage among Iraq’s Shiite leadership and intensified demands that American troops leave the country.
Since then, Iraqi leaders have scaled back the saber-rattling rhetoric. But behind closed doors, the bitterness has poisoned the partnership. The government told the Iraqi military not to seek U.S. help in operations fighting the Islamic State group, two senior Iraqi military officials told The Associated Press — a sign that authorities are serious about rethinking the strategic relationship.
At stake are vital U.S.-provided weapons, military technologies and aircraft that have been key in countering the threat of Islamic State group militants trying to make a comeback in northern and western Iraq. The prospect of losing that help is one reason why Iraqi politicians have cooled their demands for American forces to go immediately. Senior Iraqi military officials oppose a withdrawal.
“To us the American presence is like the electricity network in a house,” said a brigadier general stationed in western Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media. “If the light is turned off the whole place goes dark.”
In the wake of the U.S. strike that killed Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a senior Iraqi militia commander, Iraq’s parliament passed a non-binding resolution demanding the government force out the Americans. Tens of thousands marched in an anti-U.S. rally inspired by a radical cleric, while Iraq's outgoing premier, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, openly stated that the troops must go.
American forces had to halt joint operations with Iraqi military against IS after the strike, a pause that would last for three weeks. In the interim, the U.S. troops fortified bases against potential retaliation by Iran or Iraqi Shiite militias — like the new tower and beefed-up barricades at a base visited recently by the AP in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.
About 5,200 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Iraqi bases to support local troops fighting IS militants, part of a larger international coalition invited by the Iraqi government in 2014.
But since then, Western officials say Iraqi authorities have taken no concrete measures to hasten a withdrawal plan.
“I’d say with virtually all of the Shiite political party leaders there’s been behind closed doors and in private meetings a much more thoughtful approach on how they deal with this and a desire on their part to maintain a relationship and a coalition partnership that they regard as essential for Iraq,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
In a Cabinet session, Abdul-Mahdi said it was up to the next government to see through Parliament's resolution. Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi, a former communications minister, has not made his policy known.
Western diplomats were told that Iraq had formed a committee to study the issue of America's troop presence in Iraq, but two Iraqi officials said there was no official sign off from Abdul-Mahdi formally creating such a committee. James Jeffrey, special envoy for the global coalition to defeat IS, said, speaking of the committee, “there has not been any real engagement,” in remarks to reporters in Washington on Jan. 23.
Washington has responded to Iraq’s requests to initiate troop withdrawals with blunt refusal, even threatening sanctions that could cripple Iraq's economy.
Instead of directly pushing for U.S. withdrawal, Iraq’s government appears to be quietly distancing itself on the ground. Though the U.S. announced joint operations against IS had resumed, Iraq has been unclear. The Iraqi military announced the end of the pause on Jan. 30, but a military spokesman rescinded the claim in remarks to state television. It was not followed up with a clarification. On at least two occasions in January, U.S. officials said they expected the pause would be lifted imminently.
Two Iraqi military officials and a militia commander said this week that the government told its military not to seek assistance from the U.S.-led coalition in anti-IS operations and to minimize cooperation. The three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
“Until now, we have not asked the Americans to provide assistance, we rely on our capabilities to pursue IS elements. The presence of the Americans in the joint operations is only formal," a senior military intelligence official told The Associated Press.
Another of the officials, a commander in Iraq's elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Services in western Anbar province, said some training continues, but “as for military operations and carrying out operations, there is no support.”
No coalition airstrikes have been carried out against IS since the killing of Soleimani, said coalition spokesman Myles Caggins. In contrast, 45 strikes were conducted in Iraq in October and November. “The Iraqis have not requested assistance with airstrikes in recent weeks while our operations are paused,” Caggins said.
U.S. Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top American commander for the Middle East, met Tuesday with Iraqi leaders and acknowledged that joint military operations and training have been scaled back, although he said U.S. special operations forces are doing some missions with Iraqi commandos.
"We're still in a period of turbulence. We've got a ways to go,” he said.
A full-scale U.S. withdrawal would bring a major setback in Iraqi capabilities to fight IS that Iraqi military officers acknowledge. The U.S. withdrew from the country in 2011, only for the Iraqi military to collapse in the face of the 2014 blitz by IS that overran the north and west. As a result, the government invited the Americans back.
“The Iraqi forces present in western Iraq need continuous air support and logistical support,” said the CTS official. “These are provided to us by coalition forces, especially the U.S. If they are taken out, we will be paralyzed."
“The battle against IS is becoming increasingly technological, and we don't own any of these technologies. Only the Americans do,” said a senior army intelligence official.
The Iraqis also rely on U.S. military expertise to maintain their American-made F-16 fighter aircraft.
In the Pentagon’s March 2019 funding justification for the 2020 fiscal year, the Defense Department said if the requested $1.045 billion was not allocated to continue counter-IS training and equipment, it “would jeopardize” Iraq's ability to solidify gains made by the coalition, potentially forcing them to “strengthen relations with other state actors” — a reference to Iran.
An Sept. 2018 report to Congress by Inspector General Glen Fine said Iraqi security forces exhibited “systemic weakness” and were “years if not decades,” away from ending reliance on coalition assistance.
Iraq's Kurdish and the majority of Sunni factions oppose an American withdrawal. Many Sunnis consider the U.S. presence as a bulwark against both IS and Iranian power.
“If the Americans go out then we will be attacked by everyone, and by everyone I mean IS, the government, the militias and the parties,” said Abu Ahmad, a grocery shop owner in the Old City of Mosul, which was overrun by IS in 2014. “It is the U.S. that keeps them away from swallowing Mosul.”
Associated Press writers Salar Salim in Mosul, Iraq; Mathew Lee in Washington and Lolita C. Baldor, aboard a U.S. military aircraft, contributed to this report.