Iraq: The Consequences of Withdrawal

By: Greg C. Reeson

Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the best way for him to end the ongoing violence and ensure stability and security was to begin the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq. Khamenei was explicit in his desire to see the rapid departure of American soldiers, but the consequences of a premature U.S. withdrawal would prove to be nothing short of catastrophic.

There are three basic parties, excluding American Democrats, which are actively pushing for the removal of U.S. and coalition troops from Iraq: Iran, the Shiite faction led by radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the foreign jihadists who have flocked to Iraq to confront the United States in the Global War on Terror.

Iran has been making a concerted effort to establish itself as the leading state in the Middle East. In pursuit of this strategic goal, Khamenei and Iranian President Ahmadinejad have been actively antagonizing the United States over their nuclear program in order to portray Iran as a nation that must be reckoned with. Simultaneously, the Iranians have used Hezbollah to wage a proxy war against Israel, and the Shiites in southern Iraq to foment unrest that threatens the fragile government in Baghdad.

The conflict in Lebanon and the increasing Shiite-Sunni violence are meant to further demonstrate to the west that Iran has the ability, and the will, to destabilize the entire region for political gain. With the United States out of Iraq, there would be little to stop the Iranians from turning Iraq into a satellite state that could help cement Iran’s hegemony in the Middle East.

Muqtada al-Sadr has been a thorn in the side of the United States since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. His Mehdi Army has confronted U.S. and coalition troops in battle and his followers are largely responsible for the Shiite death squads attacking the Sunni minority and pushing Iraq closer to all-out civil war. Al-Sadr is closely aligned with the Shiite leadership in Iran and he has consistently called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq. The absence of U.S. troops would allow Al-Sadr’s militia to conduct a genocide campaign against the Sunnis while providing Iran with additional leverage over the government in Baghdad.

Finally, Islamic extremists from all over the world have traveled to Iraq to join the battle against the United States and the west. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and various other fundamentalist groups, while constituting a minority of the Iraqi insurgency, are determined to take advantage of the current chaos to wage war on anyone, Iraqis included, who opposes the formation of an Islamic state. The withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would embolden the jihadists, who would then take advantage of the power vacuum to promote Islamic rule similar to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Opposite the parties calling for America to leave Iraq are the groups with the most to lose in the event of a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

First on this list is the current Iraqi unity government. The leaders in Baghdad know that the presence of coalition forces is the only reason the situation in Iraq has not devolved into all-out civil war. Withdrawing American soldiers and their allies would leave the Shiite and Sunni death squads free to conduct their sectarian war while a fledgling Iraqi Army stood by unable to stop the carnage. In the event of full-fledged sectarian violence, the government in Baghdad would collapse, leaving a void that would likely be filled by the Iranians.

The second group opposed to a U.S. withdrawal is the Sunni minority. Yes, it’s true that the Sunnis make up the bulk of the insurgency waging war against coalition troops. But the Sunnis are fighting for a place in Shiite dominated Iraqi society. Waging a ruthless campaign against the U.S. and Iraqi armies, and against the central government, is the only bargaining chip available to a group that would surely be targeted for annihilation in a sectarian war. In an odd twist, the Sunnis have to attack the Americans to make them stay until a political accommodation can be reached.

Finally, Iraq’s neighboring countries are fearful of a powerful Iran, aligned with a Shiite-led Iraq that would threaten Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and throughout the Middle East. While none of these governments like the idea of U.S. troops in the region, especially for an extended period, the alternative in the form of an Iraq-Iran alliance that could dominate the entire Middle East is even more distasteful.

Despite the difficulties being faced in Iraq, the United States must see this fight through to the end. The fragile unity government in Baghdad must be given a chance to survive on its own.

Pulling American troops out now would give the jihadists the victory they have long been searching for, would make America look weak in the eyes of the world, would thrust Iraq into a bloody civil war, and would create a power vacuum in the Middle East that would allow Iran to establish itself as the regional hegemon. Those are the true consequences of a premature American withdrawal.

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