Foreign Military Presence in Iraq
The foreign military and paramilitary presence in Iraq has become a remarkable phenomenon in the country’s political and security situation
The foreign military and paramilitary presence in Iraq has become a remarkable phenomenon in the country?s political and security situation, which became concerning. It is obvious that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent ill-considered actions by the occupation authority headed by Ambassador Paul Bremer for the 2003-2004 period, especially those related to the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the various security services, was an introduction and an opportunity that allowed many countries and parties to intervene in the internal affairs of Iraq, build the leverage and strengthen the presence of intelligence agencies and armies within its territory. Those actions have deprived Iraq of the main force that could:
- Have protected its international borders and prevented the infiltration of terrorist groups, armed forces and intelligence agencies into its territory due to its expertise in the missions that it became accustomed to deal with in this regard.
- Have ensured public security and order within the country, which is considered as its main function as a body of the state regardless of the nature of the ruling political system.
- Have restored citizens? confidence in the existence of the state, its authority and its prestige after the trauma they have suffered because of the invasion and occupation, and to cooperate with it so as to prevent or at least limit some foreign intervention to protect the national security of the country.
All of this has huge and decisive impact on the deterioration of the security situation in Iraq, and it was also a pretext for the external security and military interventions.
What worsened the situation was the failure of the successive post-invasion governments in setting a military and security apparatuses in a mere professional manner based on consciousness and awareness. This could also be caused by the government?s lack of awareness about the important role of these apparatuses in rebuilding the country and protecting its interests, as well as maintaining its security in all its forms (simple centralization, complex decentralized, federal, etc...)
These are considered as the main reasons that made Iraq a fragile country that is easy to penetrate. This allowed many countries and forces to exist within the Iraqi territory without any real deterrence. They were also able to intervene in Iraq?s internal and even external affairs and to direct it to the best of these parties? interests and their perception of Iraq?s security, which harmed Iraq?s interests, security and people. The latest of these is very recent. It happened when 1/3 of the country?s territory was occupied by terrorist organizations affiliated to ISIS and with the expansion of PKK elements in its northern district. This is in addition to the military and paramilitary presence of some countries for one reason or another.
Although there are differences in the form of the foreign military presence in Iraq and its missions, it should be noted that there are mainly three countries whose presence is highly remarkable; the first of which is the United States, followed by Iran and Turkey.
Even though in many statements and positions these countries did not deny that their presence is aimed at maintaining their national security and vital interests, in many occasions they expressed their keenness to preserve Iraq?s security, sovereignty unity, its territorial unity and its regional security.
These countries? attitude towards the Kurdistan independence referendum, which was held on September 25, 2017, reveals the aspects and dimensions of the foreign presence, despite different perspectives when it comes to Iraq?s interests and security.
It seems to us that the matter and the problem lie in the difficulty of finding a balance between the two approaches: Iraq?s security and these countries? security, either separately or as a whole. In fact, the balance of force and its implications on countries? security, as well as its impact are undeniable in inter-states relations, especially in terms of imbalances between one country and another, just like the current situation in Iraq.
The complicated security dilemma in Iraq is not solved yet. Large part of it is related to the weakness of its current military and security capabilities, due to the abilities of these countries on one hand and its presence and conflict in Iraq on the another hand. Probably, identifying the size of the military presence and its reasons for each party would reveal an important aspect.
First, the American military presence:
The American interest in Iraq dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. While many of the aspects of the relations between the two countries, which ended up with invasion and occupation, became well known, some aspects are still unclear even after almost 14 years.
We can identify two main and modern phases of this relation in the post-invasion era. These two phases are related to the American presence in Iraq:
- First phase:
- The first phase can be noticed in the agreement on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq on December 17, 2008, which could in essence constitute a political-security agreement between a party bound by a direct military presence and the unlimited powers of the other. This was the framework in which relations between the two countries have been determined since the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011 until mid-2014, which witnessed the occupation of almost one third of the Iraqi territory by ISIS.
Through looking back at the agreement, the first of thing that caught our attention is in the introduction, exactly in the expression ?? promoting our common security,? since harming the common security of two unequal parties means much commitment especially from the weaker party, which is Iraq.
Any US administration can use the agreement to push Iraq into complex and sensitive security issues that are crucial to its national security. The United States is therefore a major force with security interests in various regions of the world that may not be important for Iraq. It can also lead Iraq to the involvement in areas where its security interests differ from the American ones, especially in its regional environment.
Given the balance of power between the two countries now and in the future, the United States will still be able to make Iraq, one way or another and to one degree or another, abide by the necessities and requirements to protect its security in accordance with its perception, despite referring in the same preamble to ?not to override the sovereignty of Iraq ...? This is because security is usually a priority when dealt with and it will be interpreted in the context of such sovereignty, which is already controversial. If necessary, it will be imposed on them and they will abide by it through the fait accompli policy.
In other articles related to the US military presence in Iraq, Article I, paragraph 1 of the same agreement referred to ?the agreed on facilities and areas? in general and did not clearly refer to their use as military bases for US forces, which were the main reasons for the occupancy and use of those facilities. It did not also specify the extent of the areas surrounding it, which are zones or protective belts, as specified in Article VI, paragraphs 2, 3 exclusively, assigned to it under the agreement. The importance and necessity of such a determination of the nature of the installations and the size as well as dimensions of the surrounding areas stipulated that ?Iraq hereby authorizes the forces of the United States to exercise within the agreed facilities and areas all rights and authorities that may be necessary for the establishment, use, maintenance and insurance of these facilities and areas ...? (paragraph 1 of article VI) and text (paragraph 3) of the same article.
The declaration and the loyalty to the US forces meant that large areas of land would be subject to the control of these forces and that Iraq would be deprived of using them and freely benefitting from them. In addition, it did not know the nature of the imposed procedures and the assumption of reporting to the Iraqi authorities some of them because it will retain what it deems important to them primarily and not necessarily to Iraq. Articles VII, VII and IX of the agreement contained provisions that conflicted with Iraq's right to exercise its full sovereignty in its geographical territory. Article VII, which deals with the status and storage of necessary equipment, states: ?the United States shall provide the Iraqi Government with the necessary information on the numbers and types of such stored materials.? It is understood that the determination of the essence of the necessary information remains with US forces.
It can be said that at this stage, the United States managed to maintain a limited military presence in Iraq, perhaps qualitative, after withdrawing its large forces from it to be an introduction to a larger and more continuously planned presence. The necessary supplies have also been provided to secure military bases and logistical support for Long-term presence and rapid intervention in response to internal and regional political and security developments whenever it decided.
This phase came as an extension of the first phase and as a result of its completion in a clearer way than its predecessor in terms of its military presence in Iraq, its nature and the nature of the tasks entrusted to it now and those that will be entrusted to it in the future, and also in terms of the entry of other parties which compete with the United States on military presence or intervention and domination at the very least.
1 - The position of the federal government which is not clear and specific, and its opinion about their presence and whether they were established with its agreement exclusively.
2 - Their presence in areas close to Iraq's neighbouring countries? territories like Turkey, Iran and Syria, and some of them are adjacent to them, such as Halabja base to Iranian territory. All these countries have interests in Iraq and their security concerns are very sensitive if not to the American presence, it is to the aspirations of the Iraqi Kurdistan Authority to secede from Iraq. In addition, its position on the recent referendum in the region reveals these concerns clearly.
3 - In addition to these, there is the Qayyarah Air Force Base which is located near the city of Mosul and Balad Air Base which is located in the Saladin province and close to the capital Baghdad. They are located on the line through which Iran seeks to secure its link with Syria across the Iraqi territory, extending from the Baiji district in Saladin and al-Hadar district, then to Tel Afar in Nineveh province and through it to the Syrian city of Aleppo and the Mediterranean Sea.
Anyway, the ISIS terrorist attacks and its control of the Iraqi cities were a good opportunity and a pretext to increase the military presence of the United States in Iraq on the basis of fighting terrorism, just as a justification for the presence of military forces of many other countries, especially Turkey and Iran.
Second, the Turkish military presence in Iraq:
In reality, the Turkish military presence in Iraqi territory is not new. It precedes the American presence, but it was not a continuous presence. It was rather in the form of limited operations agreed upon since the 1980s. At that time, the Iraqi government agreed to allow the military forces of the Turkish government to enter Iraqi territory (10-15 km) to pursue activists of the PKK party, in order to reduce their operations inside Turkey, starting from bases in northern Iraq, in addition to launching air strikes against them. That agreement apparently remained in force after what happened in Iraq in 2003 and has continued till now.
It was allowed to develop into a continuous presence, because of the lack of serious treatment by successive Iraqi governments since that year. They have not rescinded the previous agreement and have not amended or replaced it, if there is a need for such an agreement, through making compromises with Turkish governments. Therefore, there was a dispute between the two countries. The last one was during the battles to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIS in October 2016, when Turkey insisted on keeping its forces in the Bashiqa camp near Mosul, despite the Iraqi government's demand to evacuate the camp and end its military presence there and in any other areas of northern Iraq.
The issue raised more than one question at the time, most importantly:
A. Turkey's insistence on its military presence in the region.
B. The timing of its provocation by the Iraqi government when Iraq is in the midst of a battle against terrorism that is very important to its security and stability.
C. The presence of military forces of more than one state in the region within the coalition of the war on terrorism, without demanding to end its presence, similar to Turkey's demand to end it.
D. The role of events and the developments of the internal situation and the regional powers in provoking the crisis and the dispute between the two countries.
1. Turkey?s motives behind the presence in Iraq
It can be said that whatever the arguments and pretexts marketed by Turkey to justify its presence in Iraqi territory, regardless of its size and form, the issue is originally related to the nature of its functions, for reasons that can be summed up to two main factors.
The first is a fixed factor that in essence is related to:
A. A historical dimension dating back to the time of the occupation of Iraq by Britain during the First World War and the expansion of its control over territories belonging to the province of Mosul, which was not occupied, by announcing and signing the truce on October 30, 1918 to include the city of Erbil and the rest of the state twelve miles away from Mosul. This was employed by Turkey at the League of Nations after it described it as an illegal act and a violation of the truce. Despite the agreement reached with Britain and Iraq under the Iraqi-British-Turkish Treaty (18 June 1926), Turkey was not satisfied with what had been reached. It seems that it is not willing to let what it could not change at that time continue to be a disturbing concern for its security and what it considers as a loss of its interests and other interests that it aims to realize.
B. A political-security aspect due to Turkey's concerns about the Kurds? tendency towards its people and the neighbouring countries: Iraq, Syria and Iran. It is also linked to their aspirations to establish their own state that includes the Kurds in these countries at the expense of their lands in the areas where they constitute the majority of its population and those where they have an even relative population density. The majority of them live in Turkey and represent between 15% and 20% of its population. They live in the eastern and south-eastern parts of the country and in the political and geographical region near Iraq and Syria in 21 Turkish provinces, which are all 81. These concerns increased with the establishment of the PKK in 1978 and with its activities and operations against Turkish institutions, forces and interests. These concerns further increased with the official establishment of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region after 2003, and then with the development of the situation and events in Syria, the development of the Syrian Kurds? situation in particular, the growth of their strength and the Western support for them since the establishment of the YPG in 2011 in the city of Ayn al-Arab (Koban?) and the expansion of its control to include a number of Syrian cities that are near the Turkish border. These concerns escalated with the last referendum in the Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2017, which is considered as an introduction to the separation from Iraq. It is also viewed as a precedent whose impacts and reflections will sooner or later extend to reach the Kurds of Turkey and the rest of the neighbouring countries in light of developments in the region and the planned projects to be implemented.
The second is a variable factor, though it is related to the first factor in one way or another. They are linked to Turkey's special recognition of its national security, the changing balance of power in the region as well as the political, security and demographic changes in areas it considers as vital for its national security. Its impulsion and strictness have been exacerbated by a number of regional and international variables, the most important of which are:
A - The changes that Iraq witnessed since 2003 and its perturbed political and security situation in addition to the differences, conflicts in interests among its social components, which so far prevented the inclusive patriotic reconstruction of the Iraqi state, and its inability to redefine its interests and national goals.
B - Changes in the countries of the region described as the Arab Spring and their political as well as security implications and the instability of most, if not all, of its states.
C - The developments of the political, security and social situation in Syria and its implications on the Turkish security and its effects on it, starting from displacement and intensive migration to Turkey or through its cities, borders and shores and ending with the growing strength of the Syrian Kurds as well as the predictions of the development of their situation in the future.
D - The growing role of Russia in the region, in Syria in particular, and the unclear American role after a period of regression during the two terms of President Barack Obama.
E - The unstable relations with the United States between coldness and tension, besides the disagreement concerning the dealing with the situation in Syria in general and the support of the Kurds in particular through the support of YPG and the position of the United States from the failed military coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. This is in addition to Turkey?s recent accusation of the US, although indirectly, of its involvement in this attempt and its refusal to handover Fethullah G?len, the person Turkey accuses of plotting the coup with his supporters. Added to that is the latest crisis between the two countries following a court decision, which was issued on 9 October, that sentenced Metin Topuz, a Turkish employee working in the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, to prison for various charges, including espionage and cooperating with G?len.
F - The hesitant position of the European countries regarding the matter of its acceptance into the European Community and more recently the issue of the refugees? migration to Europe via Turkey.
There is no doubt that the Turkish decision-maker has taken into account all of these factors, variables and others, as well as the interaction between them. He considered them as serious challenges to the national security of his country in the turbulent context of the balance of power in the region and its possible changes in the future. What is most important to him seems to be the following:
1 - The strategy of President Donald Trump?s US administration in Iraq, Syria and the region on the whole.
2 - The balance of power with Iran considering it and Turkey as the most powerful states in the region. Actually, both are looking for power and a regional role that allows them to achieve their interests and aspirations and to play a greater and more important regional as well as international role.
3 - The development of the Kurds? political and security situation in Iraq and Syria.
It can be said, therefore, that what is happening in Iraq is a US-Turkish-Iranian competition. Moreover, because of the circumstances it is facing, Iraq has become an open scene for competition and conflict between these countries, regardless of the actual map of understandings and agreements that have been imposed by the developments in the current situation in Iraq, Syria and the region in general.
It is true that the Turkish military presence in Iraq is limited compared to the US presence and even the Iranian one, since it does not exceed a few military bases, which are no more than three and the most important one is at Bamarni Airport in Dohuk province, hundreds of Turkish soldiers and a limited number of heavy vehicles including tanks, wheels and artillery. But, Turkey seems to consider its military presence as important, perhaps for deterrence purposes. This is aimed to confirm its existence and the need to take its interests and security concerns into consideration, in addition to its role in any movements or arrangements in the region which it still considers as a part that has been cut off from its territory and in which it has economic interests and effects on its security. Therefore, its presence raised a huge controversy between it and the Iraqi government during the operation of the liberation of Mosul in October 2016.
However, what is more important than this Turkish presence, which is almost symbolic in our estimation, is its political significance and security dimensions. In addition, Turkey's ability to exist and to intervene almost continuously in the northern parts of Iraq, through the air force it uses to launch air strikes against the positions and members of the Labour Party, and the forces it mobilizes on the border with Iraq are far more important than its actual presence in the Iraqi territory.
As part of its rivalry with the United States and Iran over the military presence in Iraq, Turkey fears that the US is present because of its relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, its support of them and its overlooking of the movements of the PKK and their expansion in Iraqi cities and areas that are close to its borders in Sinjar district exactly, and recently in Kirkuk province, despite the fact that the party has been classified as a terrorist group. This is in addition to its support of the Kurds of Syria and their expansion in the Syrian cities and territories that are adjacent to it. Meanwhile, the Iranian presence raises Turkey?s concerns because of its influence in the effective governmental and partisan circles, which played a significant role in raising the issue of its presence near Mosul in the camp of Bashiqa.
There is no doubt that Iran's plan, which has been revealed by the British newspaper The Observer, on October 9, 2016, quoting the correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, Martin Chulov, to secure a route extending from the Iranian border with Diyala province, passing through the Iraqi territories towards the city of Baiji, then Al-Shirqat, Shourah, and Mahalabiya, towards the district of Tel Afar and then to the Syrian borders towards the north-east to the city of Latakia on the Mediterranean, is a plan that raises Turkey?s concerns. This is because Iran's success in securing such a vital route would provide it with very important strategic advantages of power and movement in areas that are close and next to the Turkish borders, and a free access to the Mediterranean Sea in light of their competition for regional status, including the economic benefits and interests which it can provide to Iran.
Third, the Iranian military presence:
Needless to say that one of the most important consequences of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, before Afghanistan in 2001, is the decisive change in the balance of power in favour of Iran. The invasion of Iraq and the destruction of its power as well as its military, economic and other capabilities encouraged Iran to invest and dedicate an important part of its resources to strengthen its forces that were invested to achieve balance within it. It has also enabled Iran to build and develop its influence during the period of occupation through its relationships with some of the main political forces involved in the political process and the political use of the sectarian factor. This will further allow Iran to fill the gap created by the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, leaving Iraq struggling with political problems and unable to face the risks and security challenges in such unstable environment. Therefore, it was not difficult for any observer of the development of the situation in Iraq or anyone interested in it to notice the increasing Iranian influence on Iraqi affairs in a frequent and thoughtful manner since the political, social, security and economical invasion. Although Iran took its role in Iraq as a sectarian cover, its essence was nationally corrective and pragmatic in its strategic calculations and awareness of its national security. The lack of recognition and appreciation of some political forces and successive Iraqi governments during this period, if not its identification with each other for one reason or another, led to a significant imbalance of power in favour of Iran.
Just as all countries with a significant military presence in Iraq have their motives and objectives, Iran also has its motives and reasons which can be summed up as follows:
1. Political and security motives caused by:
a) Decades or rather centuries of tension and conflict with Iraq due to the historical development of the relationship between the two parties in the past and present because of the status, borders, water, regional as well as international interference and overlaps between these and war.
b) US military presence in Iraq after its invasion and its growth at an increasing pace after 2014.
c) Providing a land road through Iraqi territory in order to reach the Syrian territory, including Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.
d) Influencing the pace of political life as well as the political process in Iraq in favour of Iran?s interest and its national security within its competition and conflict with the United States, some countries of the region and the Arabian Gulf, in the search for an influential regional role that provides a competitive advantage in international affairs and in research regarding its nuclear file.
e) The development of the situation of Iraqi Kurds since 2003.
2. Ideological motives related to its principle of "exporting the revolution" in different dimensions and ways.
3. Economic motives, as the amount of trade exchange between Iraq and Iran rose up to $8.5 bn. This is in addition to the important resources that the Iraqi-joint oil fields are providing in order to help them achieve the objectives of foreign policy and internal economic distress because of the US embargo.
As for Iran's military presence in Iraq, it can be said that Iran has a direct one represented by the existence of 1,000 Iranian military advisers, according to the statement of Hassan Gabri Ansari, the spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was reported by the Iranian Fars news agency in May 2016. In addition, there is an almost direct military presence through armed factions supported by Iran, which are estimated to include about 5000 members and to be infiltrated inside Iraq in 2015 by some Iraqi political and security circles.
Iran has a direct military presence in Iraq
In reality, the Iranian presence has taken more different and clear dimensions and forms after ISIS terrorist attacks and its occupation of large areas of Iraqi territory, and following the fatwa issued by the religious Marja Ali al-Sistani, which constituted of forming what has become known as the Popular Mobilization Forces in order to confront them.
In addition to the Iranian advisers, there are five armoured brigades within the perimeter of Diyala province and 40 kilometres deep inside Iraqi territory, said the commander of the Iranian ground force Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan. He added that these armed brigades are present to prevent any of ISIS?s future attacks on the western border of Iran and its occupation of Iranian areas.
These forces and factions are deployed in camps located in the cities bordering Iran in Mandali district, Khanaqin and another area near to Manziriya border crossing in Diyala province. There is a number of other camps in different areas of the province, such as Baqubah and Kharnabat, in addition to their presence in the areas of the northern and southern regions of the belt of Baghdad the capital and Samarra cities, Tikrit and Baiji in Saladin province and Jurf al-Sakhar in the province of Babylon, as well as Samawah desert in southern Iraq.
At the end of June 2014, Iran established a special command centre at al-Rasheed Military Airport in Baghdad for a squadron of Ababeel reconnaissance aircrafts and intelligence surveillance units in order to survey the movement and activities of ISIS terrorist groups and intercept communications between them. On July 1, seven Su-25 planes were sent to the airport to be managed by Iraqi and Iranian crews.
The Iranian military presence has been approved by the Iraqi government, which has officially given logistical and military support to Iran. However, it has not given details about the actual number of Iranian troops in Iraq. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has previously announced at the Munich Security Conference in early 2016 that "the Iranian military presence in Iraq is limited to monitoring and military consultations only." However, in an interview with the Iranian Mehr News Agency, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani confirmed the presence of Iranian officers and forces in Iraq and praised their fighting in cities such as Ramadi, Samarra, Tikrit and Baghdad.
Regardless of the actual size of the Iranian military presence in Iraq, it can be said that it is large, remarkable and varied in number, equipments, weapons and the nature of its military functions. It competes with the US military presence in many ways because of the nature of the seemingly tense relations between the United States and Iran on the background of many files, including, perhaps and foremost, Iraq. However, this did not prevent their cooperation in some cases, such the battle for the restoration of Tikrit city from ISIS?s hands, during which US fighter jets supported Iraqi forces in the process along with the participation of Iranian forces. The Battle of Amirli too was a response to the Iraqi government?s request and another proof of cooperation.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country has become susceptible to the blatant intervention of many countries in its internal affairs, and to the military presence of some of them under different pretexts which vary according to these countries and their recognition of their interests and national security. Thus, Iraq became a scene of competition and conflict between these countries, whether it was the objective of these conflicts or to achieve its interests and foreign policy objectives in the region and the world. The rivalry and conflict have seriously affected Iraq's political and security situation in particular as well as its stability. They also prevented it from taking advantage of the change that it witnessed in order to reconstruct a new basis that will allow Iraq to occupy a position, which matches its civilization and humanist heritage as well as its physical strength and capabilities.
Despite the unequal power and capabilities of the main warring countries, in terms of military and the size of present military troops, they do not seem to be very different regarding the influence exercised on the Iraqi internal and external affairs and their impact, especially amid the absence of the Iraqi national vision which unifies the general interests of the country and its higher goals, even at the public level. Conversely, these countries have a clear, defined and largely unified vision of their interests and objectives inside Iraq and the region in general, as well as strategies for achieving their foreign policy objectives.
It seems that this is the main joint of politics and security in Iraq, which has been missing or has been denied at least until now by its subsequent governments and political forces. It has also played a different, multiple, direct and indirect military presence in its territory, and still plays an important role in preventing awareness and the recognition of this presence in the form of internal and external policies that limit this military presence and its effects.
This would have been very different if this presence had been established upon the basis of conscious awareness and free will to its necessity, size and nature in a country that is in need for more stability in order to achieve development and reconstruction on a modern basis, provided by its actual and underlying potential. Then, it would play its role in establishing regional and international peace and security.