Li Weijian: US leaves Iraq in tatters to target China, but still keeps the region on radar
28 Jul, 2021  |  Source:Global Times  |  Hits:874

US President Joe Biden agreed on Monday to formally conclude the US combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year, according to CNN. On the same day, Biden met Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in the White House.

In 2003, despite widespread opposition from the international community, the US invaded Iraq in the name of destroying so-called Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, to topple the rule of the former Saddam Hussein government. The Hussein government has long been overthrown. Hussein himself was executed at the end of 2006. The US in 2018 declared the Islamic State was defeated. Actually, US troops in Iraq have no reason to continue their presence in Iraq.

Iraq does not want to see US troops stationed in their country. The New York Times reported that Al-Kadhimi headed to Washington to demand that Biden withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq. Indeed, the Iraqi parliament in January 2020 passed a resolution calling on the government to expel foreign troops from the country, and file a formal complaint to the UN against the US, "for its serious violations and breaches of Iraqi sovereignty and security."

Dealing with Hussein was only an excuse of its invasion of Iraq. Washington hoped to turn Iraq into a Western democracy and expand its influence in the Middle East. CNN reported, "It [the end of US combat mission in Iraq] will also not result in the withdrawal of US troops from the country, as has happened in Afghanistan." The US may still want to retain its influence in Iraq and the Middle East and protect its interests in the region by retaining its troops in Iraq. For example, the US still aims to maintain arms sales to regional countries and obtain oil from Iraq.

The US' contraction strategy in the Middle East can be traced back to the later period of the George W. Bush administration. Biden's decision of ending the US military's combat mission in Iraq is just a part of the US' overall strategy of contraction from the Middle East. Some previous analyses said that the contraction was mainly aimed to deal with the collective rise of emerging powers including China. It now appears that Washington's main purpose, including the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, is to concentrate its efforts against China. Washington clearly regards Beijing as a competitor. It has introduced the "Strategic Competition Act of 2021" to mobilize a variety of diplomatic, economic and strategic tools to counter Beijing. Therefore, the US wants to gather more resources to deal with China's rise.

The US now wants to have a full competition with China on a global scale. This is already no secret and will definitely be reflected at the regional level. The US' contraction from the Middle East doesn't mean it is giving up the Middle East. It wants to maintain or expand its influence in the region in another way.

After taking office in 2021, Biden proposed a "Build Back Better Plan" to imitate China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to build infrastructure and help developing countries. The proposal is also targeting China, aiming to weaken China's influence and replace the BRI. China maintains good relations with countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, and is working with them under the BRI. The US has long feared China's influence in the Middle East.

US troops have been in Iraq for 18 years. The invasion in 2003 has killed over 200,000 civilians. The US invasion intensified religious and ethnic conflicts in Iraq, and the extremist group IS took the opportunity to emerge as a powerful terrorist force in a short period of time in Iraq and Syria. 

Furthermore, Washington has also caused turmoil and chaos of some other countries in the Middle East. The "Arab Spring" of 2010 was originally about internal issues in these countries. But Washington immediately labeled the struggle as a conflict between "democracy" and "dictatorship." This has set off unrest in these countries whose after-effects are still lingering. With US' instigation, wars are still burning in places like Libya and Syria. 

(Li Weijian, researcher at the Institute of World Religions, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The views do not necessarily reflect those of this platform.)