A Withdrawal of the U.S. Embassy from Baghdad Could Destabilize Iraq
Following an escalation of violence against U.S. forces and diplomats in Iraq, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested in late September that the United States close its embassy in Baghdad and move it to a smaller, more secure location in Amman, Jordan, or Erbil, Kurdistan Regional Government. If the U.S. follows through, this decision would have complicated ramifications for which the net benefit to the U.S. and Iran remains unclear. However, on the whole, the move would clearly destabilize Iraq, increase the risk of violence between the U.S. and Iran, and hurt Washington’s diplomatic position in the Middle East. Iraqi officials and party leaders – including those opposing U.S. presence in the country – are therefore united in opposition to the relocation and have taken steps to address America’s concerns.
An Escalating Conflict
The United States Embassy in Iraq is by far the largest embassy in the world. Its compound covers 104 acres in Baghdad’s Green Zone, cost $750 million to build, and had a peak staff of 16,000 (including 2,000 diplomats) from its 2009 opening until 2012. This embassy is the base of American operations in Iraq and, as such, is a frequent target for attacks against the U.S.
Amid an escalation of U.S.-Iran tensions in 2019, the leaders of Asaib Ahl Al Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, the two strongest Iran-backed militias in Iraq, launched a series of attacks on American targets. The two militias were vocal in claiming responsibility for the ongoing violence, and said that the attacks would continue until Washington withdrew all forces from Iraq.
On December 31, 2019, Iran-backed militias within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Aided by Iraqi guards, a mob broke through the embassy’s first layer of defense and ransacked several offices. The Trump administration accused Iran of planning the attack, and retaliated by killing General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the PMF and one of Iran’s most reliable allies in Iraq.
In the months following Soleimani’s death, the number of attacks on U.S. and other Western targets in Iraq sharply increased. In September, a British Embassy convoy in Iraq was attacked with a roadside bomb, six rockets were fired at an American military base in Erbil, and a rocket was fired at U.S. troops in Baghdad Airport (it missed and hit a house, killing five Iraqi civilians). In response, on September 24th U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Iraqi President Barham Salih that, if Iraqi security forces could not do more to prevent attacks, the U.S. would close its embassy in Baghdad, and drew up plans to move it and its staff to Erbil, Kurdistan Region, or to Amman, Jordan.
For the United States, closing the embassy would have several significant benefits. As the focal point of American involvement in Iraq, the embassy is a major target for Iran and Iran-backed militia groups. Moving it to a more secure location would deprive those forces of a target and make it easier for the United States to conduct operations against Iranian-backed forces without fear of reprisal attacks on the embassy. Moreover, as part of his plan to end America’s involvement in the Middle East, President Trump has already pulled thousands of remaining U.S. troops from Iraq during his term — most recently in September he withdrew 2,200 troops, bringing the U.S. total down to 3,000. Withdrawing from its massive embassy, and perhaps relocating to a smaller one in Kurdistan, is a visible sign of a drawdown in Iraq. Finally, the current embassy is expensive to maintain and secure, and a budget-conscious Trump administration could save money by relocating to Erbil or Amman.
America in Retreat?
Such a move, however, would also have serious negative consequences. The embassy is extremely symbolic, and abandoning it would be a visible sign of America’s withdrawal from the region and its commitments to its allies, thus changing the strategic calculus of both American allies and adversaries. This notion is particularly concerning to American allies — states and pro-American political parties — in the Gulf region.
If the United States pulls out, it is possible that Iranian-backed militias might take over the compound for propaganda purposes. Given that the last militia attack on the U.S. embassy led to the killing of General Soleimani, Tehran might hesitate to make such a provocation. The 1979 hostage crisis is in recent memory of the U.S. government, which has publicly stated that it will not tolerate another attack by the IRGC or its affiliates. For its part, Tehran has signaled its willingness to de-escalate; on October 22nd, Middle East Eye reported that Supreme Leader Khamenei had explicitly ordered that Iran-backed attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq stop.
Perhaps more importantly, however, leaving the embassy would deprive American diplomats and security forces of a significant base in Baghdad and thus would clearly hinder America’s influence there. The embassy’s purpose in Baghdad exceeds diplomacy; it hosts defense and intelligence operations in the fight against ISIS and plays a critical role in the training of the Iraqi Army, including the integrated PMF forces.
Over the past year, the U.S. has seen a string of successes in Iraq that have allowed it to strengthen its position in Baghdad. Harsh U.S. sanctions have impeded Tehran’s ability to supply its militias in Iraq. Furthermore, a series of popular protests, partially instigated by anger over undue Iranian influence in the country, have forced ideologically pro-Iran parties and militias within Iraq to distance themselves from Tehran for political survival. These two factors suggest that Iran’s position in Baghdad today could be the weakest it has been in nearly a decade. Leaving now would be a spectacular reversal; U.S. influence in Iraq would wane, and the credibility of the pro-Iran faction (and, hence, its militias and share of parliamentary seats) would immediately increase. Clearly none of these consequences are in the interest of the United States.
Nearly All Iraqi Leaders Oppose the Relocation
In the aggregate, it is difficult to predict whether the impact of leaving Baghdad will be positive or negative for the United States or for Iran, which has made no official statement on the proposal. In regard to the stability and sovereignty of Iraq, however, the move will certainly be a disaster. The nation relies heavily on U.S. assistance programs and military and technical support, all of which are based out of the embassy and would be severely impacted by its withdrawal. A U.S. withdrawal could lead other coalition partners to leave Baghdad as well, potentially triggering a resurgence of ISIS. This would be catastrophic for Iraq, as the country continues to fight the remnants of the terror group, including its sleeper cells, and American intelligence and logistical support is crucial in this stage.
Furthermore, Baghdad has attempted to walk a tightrope between American and Iranian objectives in the region and remain neutral in the conflict between the two. Although both parties have forces within Iraq, the government has largely been successful in avoiding siding with either government. Amid escalating tensions, on September 23rd President Salih spoke to the UN General Assembly, insisting that Iraq would remain neutral in any regional conflicts. By moving the embassy and in turn weakening the Iraqi Army, the U.S. would force Iraq to rely on the Iranian elements of the PMF, strengthening Iran and putting Iraq’s continued neutrality in jeopardy.
Consequently, the loudest voices decrying the move have come from within the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi reassured America that Iraq took seriously its responsibility to protect foreign diplomats. He also warned that “the consequences of a US withdrawal, if it would happen, would be catastrophic for Iraq.” Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein added, “We hope that the U.S. government and American administration will reconsider this decision … because the decision is a wrong one.”
Even Iraqi leaders who fought against U.S. forces during the insurgency recognize that its withdrawal from Baghdad could have serious repercussions. Iraqi opposition leader Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, criticized attacks on diplomatic personnel regardless of nation. “What some armed groups affiliated with the Hashd al-Shaabi [PMF] are doing,” he said in a statement, “is weakening Iraq, its people and country, and weakening these three aspects means strengthening the external forces.” Al-Sadr, no friend of the United States, later describes it as “a great evil” and the primary beneficiary of instability in Iraq. However, his statement makes it clear that U.S. withdrawal would hurt his and Iraq’s interests.
To prevent the embassy’s closure, the Iraqi government has announced that it is taking steps to address the violence against American targets. Foreign Minister Hussein later spoke with Pompeo, strongly advising against the move, and Prime Minister Kadhimi announced on October 6 that a high commission had been formed to investigate the issue. It is hoped that this commission will make concrete recommendations, and the Iraqi government will succeed in implementing them. Ultimately, a decrease in violence is in the interests of all relevant parties in Iraq, particularly Iraqis themselves, regardless of sects and political affiliations.