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No matter what Biden calls US troops in Iraq, Iran is shooting at them

Now comes the difficult part of US President Joe Biden's Iraq policy.

At the White House last week, he told Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi that US combat forces would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year. At the same time, US forces serving in non-combatant roles – training, advising, and educating the Iraqi security forces – would remain.

Now comes the difficult part of US President Joe Biden's Iraq policy.

At the White House last week, he told Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi that US combat forces would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year. At the same time, US forces serving in non-combatant roles – training, advising, and educating the Iraqi security forces – would remain.

A big thing? Not really. The fact is that the vast majority of the 2,500 U.S. soldiers in Iraq have been in non-combat positions for more than a year. Consider this headline from a July 2020 US military press release: "Coalition Working Group Iraq Moves to Military Advisory Group." Sounds familiar?

The announcement of a so-called withdrawal last Monday was more about semantics than politics. It was an exercise in political theater designed to help Kadhimi appease elements in Iraq that oppose the US presence – especially powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias and their supporters among Iraqis who came to the National in October Elections will take place.

Undoubtedly, Biden's announcement was a well-intentioned gesture. But it was almost certainly half too clever: in two statements released shortly before and after the Biden Kadhimi meeting, the so-called Resistance Coordinating Committee, made up of Iran's most ardent militias in Iraq, stated that they don't buy renaming the US role in Iraq. They described the announcement as “fraud” and “manipulation” to “extend [US] hegemony”. They have made it clear that under no pretext will they accept a single US soldier who remains on Iraqi soil. It doesn't matter what their name is, combatant or non-combatant – everyone has to leave. If they do not, the militias promised to do "everything" to "cleanse our holy land from the atrocities of the occupiers".

Biden should take them seriously. Attacks on US personnel in Iraq have escalated significantly since he took office six months ago. Since Biden took office, Iraqi militias have targeted US troops in Iraq and across the border in Syria more than 30 times, including at least a dozen attacks in July alone.

It is not just the absolute number and the pace of attacks that have increased. They also become more demanding. Most worryingly, the militias are now using advanced, accurate Iran-supplied drones capable of evading US defenses. The first attack of its kind in April targeted an allegedly secret CIA hangar in Iraqi Kurdistan, underscoring the volatile change in the threat level now facing US personnel.

Fortunately, the number of victims was low, there were no American deaths. But there is good reason to believe that, given the increasing lethality and sophistication of the weapons used, Iran and its proxies are increasingly aiming to kill, not just harass, Americans.

There is no doubt that the Iranians tested Biden. And why shouldn't they? You watched him withdraw from Afghanistan. You can see how eager he was to re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran. They know he is keen to ease tensions in the Middle East so that he can focus on his domestic goals and China.

In Iran's eyes, Biden has shown all the telltale signs of an overzealous buyer entering a market. So why not push for even bigger concessions in nuclear negotiations, moving ever closer to nuclear weapons capabilities? Why not step up attacks on US positions in Iraq to see if Biden can be pressured to cut back and flee?

You can feel that the Biden administration has realized that the Iranians see them as an easy sign. And Biden has been in the foreign policy game long enough to know how dangerous that can be. To rid Iran of this idea, Biden has twice approved retaliatory strikes against militia positions on the Iraqi-Syrian border. It did not work. In fact, after the second attack, Iran's Iraqi officials responded with the largest attack on the US forces since Iran itself fired a volley of ballistic missiles after former President Donald Trump appointed Iran's Supreme General, the Quds commander Unit, Qassem Suleimani, in Baghdad. targeted murder in January 2020.

The reality is that deterrence against Iran is not cheap to buy. When the world's most powerful nation responds to dozens of potentially fatal attacks on its soldiers with two pin pricks in the desert, it screams that the United States is deliberately avoiding real confrontation. It tells Iran that it has escalation dominance in Iraqi theater and that the chances are high that Biden will eventually fold rather than fight if his proxies keep pushing. Rather than seeing Biden's retaliatory strikes as a message of worse if they don't stop and do it, Iran and its proxies have likely come to the conclusion that it is bluffing and on the verge of withdrawing entirely. Worse than failure, Biden's reaction to the onslaught of attacks was provocation.

If Biden thought that his diplomatic sleight of hand with Kadhimi had a chance to trick Iran into resigning, he is almost certainly in for a rude awakening. The effect is more like waving a red cloak in front of a bull. Iran and its proxies have picked up on the smell of U.S. restrictions, and as the militia response to Biden's announcement makes clear, every chance the second half of 2021 will be even more dangerous for U.S. personnel in Iraq than the first . Does Biden understand that? Having apparently decided that the benefits to US interests of remaining in Iraq outweigh the costs, is he really willing to pay the price for his strategy to succeed?

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