Last week, the United States executed a high-ranking Iranian official by dropping several bombs on him as he lingered outside Baghdad International Airport. The U.S. did not seek the Iraqi government’s permission before carrying out an assassination-by-missile on the streets of its capital city. And the Iraqi government (understandably) took exception to this oversight.
Iraq is now a sovereign nation, not U.S.-occupied territory. It had consented to the ongoing presence of American troops on the understanding that they are there to train Iraqi security forces, and counter jihadists, not slaughter Iranian officials at its airport. Thus, on Sunday, the Iraqi parliament voted to expel U.S. troops from the country.
It is not clear if this resolution is legally binding, and the Iraqi lawmakers included no timetable for withdrawal. Further complicating matters, Iraq is currently ruled by “caretaker” government, as Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi officially resigned in December amid nationwide protests, but has continued executing his formal duties until new elections can be held. In this context, the limits of the sitting government’s authority is ambiguous. Meanwhile, most Kurdish and Sunni lawmakers sat out Sunday’s special emergency session, which is significant, since support for U.S. withdrawal in those ethnic communities is lower than among Iraq’s Shia majority (ostensibly because a U.S. withdrawal would help Iran, a Shia power, increase its influence over Iraqi politics and society).
For these reasons, there was little basis for believing the U.S. would comply with the Iraqi parliament’s order. After all, if America respected Iraqi sovereignty, it wouldn’t have carried out the strike against Soleimani (or ever invaded the country) in the first place. And President Trump appeared to confirm America’s intransigence Sunday, when he vowed to respond to the expulsion of U.S. troops by “charging” Iraq sanctions “like they’ve never seen before ever.”
And yet, on Monday afternoon, the Iraqi defense ministry received a letter from United States Marine Corps Brigadier General William H. Seely III, the commanding general of Task Force Iraq, announcing America’s withdrawal from the country.
“Sir, in deference to the sovereignty of the Republic of Iraq, and as requested by the Iraqi Parliament and the Prime Minister, CJTF-OIR will be repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement,” the commanding general wrote. “We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure.”
An Iraqi military official confirmed the authenticity of the letter to Reuters, and America’s long-awaited, final withdrawal from Iraq became international news.
For a few minutes, anyway. Shortly after the letter began making headlines, the Trump administration clarified that it does not, in fact, respect Iraq’s “sovereign decision.”
In a press conference Monday afternoon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley explained that the letter in question was just “a draft.”
“It was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released,” Milley continued, adding that the letter was “poorly worded,” and implied withdrawal, which is “not what’s happening.”
So, fear not America — your nation’s mission in Iraq remains unaccomplished.