BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government has interpreted a letter delivered by the U.S. military advising of a “repositioning” of U.S. forces as a signal of an intent to withdraw from Iraq, Iraqi officials said Tuesday, even as the Pentagon strenuously denied that any decision has been made to pull out from the country that has embroiled the U.S. military in conflict for most of the past 30 years.
The letter delivered to the office of Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, on Monday cited “deference” to a vote in the Iraqi parliament calling on all foreign forces to leave by way of explaining an expected increase in U.S. helicopter activity over Baghdad airport in the “coming days and weeks.”
The U.S. military wants ‘to ensure that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner,” the letter said.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the letter a “mistake” and a “poorly worded” draft. U.S. military officials said such letters are routine, intended to keep their Iraqi counterparts abreast of intended U.S. troop movements to avoid misunderstandings.
But already it had become clear that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is growing increasingly untenable, at least in its current form, in the wake of the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week, which drew threats of retaliation from Iran and its regional allies against U.S. troops in Iraq and beyond.
“It’s a hostile environment,” said Sajad Jiyad, who heads the Bayan Center think tank in Baghdad. “They are potentially not wanted, the costs are high, and the risks are high.”
In comments to the Iraqi cabinet, broadcast on state television, Abdul Mahdi expressed exasperation with the conflicting signals coming from Washington. The letter he received “was clear,” he said, in its reference to a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
“It’s not like a draft or a paper that fell out of the photocopier and coincidentally came to us,” he told the cabinet.
Two Iraqi officials said the caretaker prime minister had read the letter as a signal of a U.S. intent to withdraw and concluded that it was necessary in light of the spiraling tensions between the United States and Iran, which risk putting Iraq in the middle of a new war.
In Abdul Mahdi’s view, “there is no way to ensure the stability of Iraq without the withdrawal of foreign forces,” said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly on a sensitive subject.
“We won against ISIS,” he said, referring to the Islamic State by another name. “Having them [the U.S.] here now complicates things more.”
The copy of the letter, which was obtained by the Iraqi media and then widely circulated, was not signed by Brig. Gen. William Seely, the apparent author, Pentagon officials have noted. The first news outlet to publicize the letter was the television station belonging to the Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, whose leader, Qais al-Khazali, is designated a terrorist by the United States.
Abdul Mahdi said the copy of the letter he received did bear a signature, and he is dismissing the Pentagon denials, said the official. “As a state, we deal with the official letters that we receive, and we will act in accordance with this letter,” the official quoted the Iraqi leader as saying.
Abdul Mahdi has asked the United States to put in place a timeline for a withdrawal, the official said.
The furor over the letter came as U.S. allies in Iraq began to evacuate their troops in the wake of the vote in the Iraqi parliament on Sunday and threats against U.S. forces. The German government said all of the 100 or so of its troops that had been based outside Iraq’s Kurdistan region had been relocated to Kuwait or Jordan. Canada said it would be withdrawing 500 troops from Iraq.
The future status of the 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq was already on the line before a U.S. drone strike killed Soleimani alongside a top Iraqi militia leader early Friday local time outside Baghdad airport. The Iraqi government has slammed the attack as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and of rules governing the presence of troops dispatched to fight the Islamic State.
An escalating campaign of rocket strikes against U.S. troops hosted on Iraqi bases conducted by Kataib Hezbollah, one of the Iranian-backed militias commanded by Soleimani, had exposed the vulnerability of U.S. personnel in Iraq. After the death of a U.S. contractor in one of those strikes late last month prompted retaliatory U.S. airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah, Iraqi fears of being caught up in a war between Iran and the United States intensified.
For U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, there would have to be guarantees that the United States would cease to use its presence in Iraq to attack Iranian targets, said Jiyad. As it is, he said, it appears to Iraqis as though the United States’s chief purpose in remaining in Iraq is to confront Iran.
The Islamic State would doubtless be emboldened by any U.S. pullout, “but the immediate concern for us in Iraq is, are things going to get worse because the United States is in Iraq?” he asked.
“The possibility of a U.S. escalation with Iran is high, the probability of airstrikes is high, so right now, it looks as if the greater risk comes from the U.S. being in Iraq,” Jiyad said.
There are many in Iraq who would like to salvage the U.S. presence, said Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. He noted that the vote in parliament was conducted in the absence of Sunni and Kurdish members, by a show of hands that did not provide evidence of overwhelming majority support for a departure of U.S. forces.
There are ways in which the U.S. military could renegotiate the terms of its presence to satisfy Iraqi concerns while also sustaining the goal of combating any revival of the Islamic State, he said. They could include maintaining a low-profile U.S. Special Forces presence to conduct raids against the Islamic State and redefining the U.S. mission as one of providing advice and training to Iraqi forces.
“There’s a lot of middle ground here for military training missions and counterterrorism missions to continue in Iraq if they want to,” he said.
But others questioned whether the events of the past week will make it viable for the U.S. troops to remain.
The vote in the Iraqi parliament “creates dynamics inside the U.S. and Iraq that make a U.S. decision to remove its forces all but inevitable,” wrote Randa Slim in an analysis for the Middle East Institute.