As US hints at plans to reduce troops, Iraqi MPs divided on what comes next

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Article Summary
US troops in Iraq are unlikely to leave the country en masse due to US long-term plans to stay, and the sharp disagreement between Iraqi politicians regarding the presence of foreign forces in the country continues apace.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, testifying before Congress on March 14, indicated that the United States is considering reducing the number of US troops in Iraq,  a move that would be in coordination with the Iraqi government, depending on the level of threat posed by a resurgence from the remnants of Islamic State (IS).

Military commanders of the Iraqi army have been clear in their view regarding the support received from the coalition forces.

In a phone call March 18 between US Vice President Mike Pence and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who also serves as commander in chief of his country's armed forces, the Iraqi leader requested that Washington continue supporting Iraq in combating IS.

Abdul Mahdi also met with a US congressional delegation, during which he repeated his request that the United States continue to help Iraq in removing IS from the country.

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Iraqi officials are aware that their capabilities by themselves are not sufficient with a renewed threat from IS. Iraq needs further bolstering of its troop capabilities, as well as the intelligence and air cover provided by the United States. The commanders at the Ministry of Defense as well as the elite anti-terrorism force have been making rounds to meet with the political leadership as well as the three presidencies, and have made it crystal clear what the current status of troops is and the level of threat posed by IS and its fighters.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently estimated that there are around 5,000 American troops in Iraq.

Iraqi Security analyst Hisham al-Hashimi told Al-Monitor that he estimates the number of IS fighters in Iraq to be around 10,000, among them 2,000 as active fighters and the rest as members of sleeper cells providing logistical support. The current locations of IS fighters are in the deserts of Jazeera and Anbar, the strip of mountains between Kirkuk and Diyala. Among those is a new generation of fighters known as Ashbal Al-Khilafa or the Caliphate Cubs, who are typically 11- to 16-year-old fighters who have been engaged in recent fighting and have received combat training, including how to make improvised explosive devices. Estimates place their number at 500 to 1,500 fighters. Many expect the total number of IS fighters to increase, with some estimates placing the figure as high as 20,000 after the collapse of IS in Syria.

Meanwhile, the noise coming from the Iraqi Council of Representatives this week was muted in regard to a bill expected to be introduced soon that would force US troops out. This silence came partly because the parliament was in recess, in addition to representatives being busy with the visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The agenda of the past four sessions did not include any item related to the troops matter.

Both the Sairoon and Fatah parliamentary blocs have been working on draft legislation to regulate and perhaps prevent the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil. However, the legislators of the two blocs are not sure about the right approach to take with regard to the presence of foreign troops and it seems the blocs are divided into three groups with different approaches. The first group wants all foreign troops out in accordance to a timetable set by the government. The second group wants to give US troops a period of two years to get their troops out. The third group wants to have the number of US and other foreign troops reduced, and as part of that a reduction in foreign troops' role involving combat. This would limit foreign troops to providing logistical support, training and intelligence, all of which would be regulated and managed by the commander in chief of the armed forces, the prime minister.

The third approach is very much in par with what Dunford told Congress regarding the reduction of US troops. It could be something the government of Iraq can work out with the Iraqi political leadership. This new approach fits the bill for both Iraq and the United States. On the one hand, Iraq continues to receive the support needed from the international coalition, while also calming down the fears of those who are suspecting that long-term foreign military bases are being established inside the country or that Iraqi soil would be used for an attack on neighboring countries.

Despite the fact that the political groups have varying motives about the subject of foreign troops, and have such wide-ranging approaches, there is an unspoken agreement among them that the government is the only legitimate body that can and should make the decision about the presence of foreign troops. Some of them also believe that parliament shouldn't push through legislation that can pose a threat to the country. For that reason, it is expected that the issue of the troop withdrawal or departure timetable would fall to the government, but that the parliamentary blocs would be fully briefed as to the government's intention on this matter.

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Farhad Alaaldin is the chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council (IAC), and served as a political advisor to former Iraqi President Fuad Masum from 2014 to 2018. Prior to this period, he was the chief of staff for the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) from 2009 until 2011, then senior advisor to the KRG prime minister from 2011 till 2012. Farhad is also executive director of RCD-English and a member of the RCD board of directors.

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