The US army is pulling out of al-Qaim and two other key military bases in Iraq in the coming weeks. The decision to leave three of its eight bases in Iraq is a sign the US is looking to dramatically reduce its footprint in the country.
It comes amid heightened tensions between the US regime, the Iraqi government and Iran. A ceremony will take place this week at al-Qaim, where the USA will formally hand over equipment to the Iraqi military security in the area.
The withdrawal will end any US presence along the Iraqi side of the border with Syria, after ISIS has been defeated by the Iraq, with the help of Iran.
The base is built on the ruins of one of Iraq’s oldest train stations, near a tiny town of the same name along the Euphrates River.
The area was the first place in Iraq to fall into the hands of the ISIS in 2014 and one of the last taken back by Iraqi forces in November 2017.
After the victory against ISIS in the area, Iranian-backed militia groups took control of both sides of the border.
Although Iraqi security forces have also had a presence around al-Qaim, it is now mainly under the control of one of those militia groups, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
At that time, PM-affiliated groups, especially Kataib Hezbollah and al-Tofof Brigades, both with close ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), were also fighting ISIS on both sides of the border, along the Euphrates River.
US convoys now had to pass through PMF-controlled checkpoints to travel to their artillery base on the Syrian border.
But the PMF started to make their opposition to the presence of US troops in Iraq clear, saying they were able to handle any threat from terrorists alone.
Kataib Hezbollah accused the USA of supporting ISIS and attacking its bases near the Syrian border, something the US-led coalition repeatedly denied.
The US killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq earlier this year further destabilized the fragile dynamic.
We will make them leave if they don’t want to leave,” a Kataib Hezbollah commander who called himself Abu Ameneh told us in an interview at the PMF’s headquarters in Baghdad.
US officials say they have been planning to leave areas like al-Qaim since last year because of the reduced threat, but concern for the safety of US and coalition forces has accelerated the move.
A senior US defense official told the BBC that the proximity of Kataib Hezbollah to the base was “a key factor within the calculation of the decision to move forces elsewhere”.
The US military also plans to withdraw from Qayara Airfield West, known as Q-West, and Kirkuk.
At least 25 rocket attacks, unleashing more than 160 individual rockets, have hit US bases in Iraq since October 2019. The attacks soured relations between the Americans in Iraq.
However, the retaliatory attack by the US on locations that the Americans say were Kataib Hezbollah ammunition storage facilities killed three Iraqi army personnel, two local police officers and one civilian.
The official number of US troops in Iraq has been estimated at up to 5,200. It is not clear how many troops will be redeployed following the three base closures, as some will be moved to other operational bases within the country.
The future of these remaining troops is not certain. The USA hopes its relationship with Iraq’s security forces is far from over, but many in Iraq think America has outstayed its welcome. Killing for oil has been an outdated, non-diplomatic operation in modern Iraq.
BBC / ABC Flash point News 2020.