The Dangers and Implications of a Probable Full US Withdrawal from Iraq

Abstract: Strategic dialogue between Iraq and the US (United States) came to the conclusion that coalition troops should be withdrawn on 31 December 2021, with the coalition’s mission becoming a purely advisory role. However, there remain a number of reasons that could push the US to end its advisory support as well and fully withdraw from Iraq. This brief argues that there are three key factors that might push US and coalition forces to a full withdrawal from Iraq. First, the continuation of attacks from Iranian-backed militias against US forces in Iraq, especially if the next Iraqi government is dominated by pro-Iranian political elite and/or the new prime minster is a pro-Iranian character. Second, the US failure to build a stable and democratic system may prove another factor influencing a full US withdrawal. Third, the powerful desire within the Biden Administration to reduce US involvement in the Middle East, including withdrawing forces from the MENA region, could prove to be the nail in the coffin. Considering the abovementioned factors, the probable full US withdrawal from Iraq will have serious implications for both Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. In this regard, a full withdrawal would pose even further domestic and regional challenges for Iraq, which even now is unable to avoid being pulled into its neighbors’ regional rivalries.


The specter of full US military withdrawal from Iraq, and its potential consequences, are matters which have been the subject of much discussion. Since 2020, the US and Iraq have held four rounds of strategic dialogue to restructure their relations and determine the future of US military presence in Iraq.[i] In the third and fourth rounds held from April to July 2021, both sides agreed to a withdrawal of all foreign combat troops and a shift in the mission of any remaining US troops, limited to approximately 2,000 to 2,500 soldiers,[ii] to an advisory and training role. These forces were mostly repositioned to the Baghdad airport, and the Ain al-Asad (in Iraq’s Anbar province) and Kurdistan regions.[iii] As such, the coalition commander John W. Brennan, in a statement on 9 December 2021, stressed that the mission of the coalition combat troops had been completed and that the purpose of any remaining coalition troops would shift ’to advise, assist, and enable the ISF (Iraqi security forces), at the invitation of Republic of Iraq.’[iv] In reality, though reduced, the continued US presence provides the Iraqi government military and political support in the face of ISIS threats. Indeed, Iraq still requires US military and political engagement in order to ensure its sovereignty.

The possibility of a full US Withdrawal from Iraq : a serious matter

Despite the US.-Iraq strategic dialogue agreeing on the continued presence of advisory troops, there are a number of reasons that could push the US to finally remove the entirety of its troops from Iraq.

First, the pressure from Iran and its proxies in Iraq constitute a key factor that could push the US towards full withdrawal. Under the Trump administration, the conflict and tension between Iran (and its proxies) and the US significantly increased, especially after Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear deal with Iran,[v] imposed maximum economic sanctions on Iran in May 2018, and then assassinated Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force at Baghdad Airport in January 2020.[vi] In this regard, Tehran-aligned groups within the Popular Mobilization Units increased their military pressure against the US. The attacks from pro-Iranian Shiite militias, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada, forced the Trump Administration to abandon several of its military bases, such as al-Qaim military base, Qayyarah and K1 in Iraq, and reposition  to areas such as Ain al-Asad and Erbil.[vii] It is expected that if Iran can influence the formation of a pro-Iran government in Baghdad in the coming period, despite the massive decline of support for pro-Iranian Shia parties in the October 2021 elections, the pressure for US full withdrawal would increase, not only from sections of the Iraqi parliament and armed militia groups but also officials from the government.

Second, the US’s failure to build a stable and democratic system since the start of its occupation of Iraq over 18 years ago may prove another factor influencing a full US withdrawal. Since 2003, the US has attempted to build a secure political system in Baghdad which would enhance the US position, preserve its interests in the region and contain Iranian influence. In pursuit of these goals, the US has spent more than 2 trillion dollars in Iraq and has seen thousands of its troops killed or wounded.[viii] Yet Iraq remains unstable with a fragile democratic system and the deep influence of Iranian armed groups, which today play a central role in Iraq’s political affairs. It is true that the pro-Iran political bloc including Fatah Alliance suffered a resounding defeat in the October 2021 elections which granted it only 17 seats, compared to its 48 seats in the 2018 elections.[ix] However, Iran-backed groups have not lost their military influence. The post-2003 failure of the US, with its limited ability to make significant changes and a lack of willingness on the part of Iraqi authorities to act towards the fulfillment of the US vision, is clearer than ever.

Third, a desire to see the end of the seemingly endless wars in the Middle East could bolster voices calling for a full US withdrawal. There is a powerful desire inside the Biden administration to reduce US involvement in the Middle East, including withdrawing US forces from the region.[x] Continuing US troop presence increases the economic pressures on the US budget.  Moreover, reducing or withdrawing US troops could reduce the anti-US sentiment in the region, and would give the US a free hand to deal with the threats coming from Russia and China. In particular, US policy focus is increasingly moving towards China and the Asia-Pacific region. Therefore, after the recent withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, Iraq could soon be next in line.