US Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Chanahan landed in Baghdad on Tuesday for an unannounced visit by Pentagon for security reasons to discuss the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and discuss the future of US forces in Iraq. Reuters news agency reported: Shanahan, who is visiting Baghdad on his first visit since his appointment to the post succeeding the outgoing General James Matisse, will confirm during his visit US support for Iraq’s sovereignty. Shanahan told reporters travelling with him “We are in Iraq at the invitation of the government, and it is in our interest to build Iraqi security capabilities,” and he added “I want to hear from them myself about their concerns and the political factors they are facing and then we will take that into consideration in our planning. It is notable that before Shanahan’s arrival to Baghdad, he was on an undeclared visit to Afghanistan to assess the situation there after the intention of US President, Donald Trump, to withdraw his troops from it.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi met with US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, and during the meeting he assured him that his country rejected any foreign military bases on Iraqi soil. The Iraqi prime minister said that his country is keen on its relations with the United States in relation to the fight against terrorism and the terrorist organization of “ISIS”, explaining that the tasks of the Americans should be limited to fighting terrorism and training Iraqi forces. The Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office quoted Abdul-Mahdi as saying that Iraq rejects the presence of foreign bases on Iraqi territory, stressing in a statement that the two sides discussed the relations between the two countries and fighting terrorism and the developments in the region. Abdul Mahdi pointed out that the Iraqi decision is “independent and is not affected by any influence and dictates from any party,” stressing “Baghdad’s openness to the Arab and regional environment, and his keenness to establish cooperative relations that serve the interests of Iraqis and promote development opportunities ,and stability for the peoples of the region “. He stressed the need to support the efforts of stability and reconstruction and the development of the economy, noting that “his country has achieved clear successes, and is now stable after defeating the gangs of the terrorist organization (ISIS).” For his part, US acting Secretary of Defense said that Washington is proud of the cooperation relations with Iraq, saying he came to listen directly to the vision of the Iraqi government to the nature and future of relations between the two countries. He praised the efforts of Baghdad and its orientation to serve all segments of the Iraqi people, pointing out that the task of US forces is to fight the organization “Daash” and to support Iraqi forces and training it in fighting against the organization.
The visit carries multiple messages to the Iraqi government, Shiite militias and to Tehran that Washington is serious in the face of Iranian influence in Iraq. Observers believe that the visit of the US Acting Secretary of Defense to Iraq to explain to Iraqi leaders the reasons for the actual need to enhance the level of US military presence in the country during the next few months, in accordance with the strategy of President Donald Trump, to monitor Iranian activities from Iraqi territory. Sources said that the main objective of the visit is to explain the plan of action of US forces in Iraq during the next phase. The visit of the US Secretary of Defense to Iraq came in order to put pressure on Abdul Mahdi to prevent passage of the draft law on the removal of US forces. They pointed out that the new US plan in Iraq is aimed at strengthening Washington’s military influence in northern and western parts of Iraq in an effort to isolate the Kurdish and Sunni Arabs from the influence of dominant Iranian influence in the center and south of the country.
This is reinforced by the influx of new US troops on military bases in Erbil and Nineveh to the north, Saladin in northwestern Iraq, and Anbar in the west. The United States transferred part of its army in Syria to two military posts in Erbil, and reinforced its military presence in the Qayyarah base south of the city of Mosul, the center of Nineveh province, and Balad near the city of Tikrit, the center of Salah ad Din province. Thus, US forces completed the transfer of their troops and equipment to the base of “Ain al-Assad” in western Anbar, and began to move in reverse to the Syrian border, to comb areas between the base and the border with Syria, and detection areas of the spread of armed factions loyal to Iran in the region. The new US plan is based on a Sunni Kurd welcome, in an effort to curb Iranian influence, which is trying to expand in northern and western parts of Iraq , according to the observers .
Observers see that the visit of Patrick Shanahan is an attempt to act on two directions, the first is to reassure the government of Adil Abdul Mahdi that Iraq will not be a base for a predictable strike to Iran, and the second is to pressure the militias to stop their moves to push the government to review the terms of the agreement with the United States. The observers considered that the visit of a senior US military official to Baghdad , confirmation that the United States is continuing to implement its plan to monitor Iran from Iraqi territory, a plan announced by President Trump earlier. The sudden visit of the Pentagon’s acting secretary to Iran appears to be a message to the Iraqi forces against Iran’s hegemony over Iraq, which will welcome the US move and gain more popular support as it expands with its sense that the United States is serious about completing its project to contain the Iranian role in the region.
In sum, the visit is one of the most effective means of curbing Iran’s heinous influence, which exploits the weakness of the rule of law and institutions to maximize Iran’s status as a strong (and influential) regime in Iraqi politics largely based on personal relations and exchanges. Unlike the United States, Iran has little to offer the Iraqis. It can not provide a political or economic model, or even the prospect of improving services, jobs or reform. Washington must seize this opportunity and renew its policy in Iraq accordingly.
Iraqi Studies Unit
Rawabet Center for Research and Strategic Studies