In the coming weeks, the US Army will pull out of al-Qaim and two other main military bases in Iraq.
The decision to abandon three of its eight bases in Iraq is an indication that the US is looking for a dramatic reduction in its footprint in Iraq.
This comes amid heightened tensions with the government of Iraq and with Iran.
Next week, a ceremony will be held at al-Qaim, where the US will officially turn over equipment to the Iraqi army to help ensure stability in the city.
It would end any US involvement along the Iraqi side of the Syrian border.
The base is built on the remains of one of the oldest train stations in Iraq, near a tiny city of the same name along the river Euphrates.
In 2014, the city was the first location in Iraq to fall into the hands of the Islamic State group (IS) and in November 2017, one of the last to be taken back by Iraqi troops.
Following the victory in the region against IS, Iranian-backed militia groups took control of both sides of the frontier.
While Iraqi security forces have also had a presence around al-Qaim, it is now mainly under the control of one of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militia groups.
Twice in the past two years, I have been traveling to al-Qaim with U.S. forces and seeing how the environment around the base has slowly changed.
Both Iraqi and US flags could be seen flying in December 2017 as the US-led coalition and Iraqi forces were working together to combat IS.
Around the time, PMF-affiliated factions, especially Kataib Hezbollah and al-Tofof Brigades, both closely linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), also battled IS on both sides of the border.
‘We will make them leave’
It was an uncomfortable situation for both parties but they had to defeat a common enemy. The Iraqi military acted as an intermediary, sometimes coordinating simultaneous operations against IS. ‘We will make them leave’
But the mood in the region had changed drastically during my last trip in December 2018. Iranian-backed groups had been part of the official security forces in Iraq and had gained strength.
Just one flag at al-Qaim flew that year, the Americans had taken possession of the base. Outside the base, however, roads were lined with PMF flags and billboards portraying Iran’s supreme leader, a man some PMF groups regard as their religious leader and commander.
To fly to its artillery base on the Syrian border, US convoys had to push through PMF-controlled checkpoints.
Yet the PMF began to make clear its opposition to the involvement of US forces in Iraq, saying that they should tackle any threat from IS alone. Kataib Hezbollah accused the US of targeting its bases along the Syrian border, something that has been denied repeatedly by the US-led coalition.
“If they don’t want to leave, we’ll make them go,” a Kataib Hezbollah leader who called himself Abu Ameneh told us in an interview at the PMF headquarters in Baghdad.
Further destabilizing the delicate situation was the US killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Iraq earlier this year.
Gen Soleimani, the IRGC’s leading elite group, was killed on 3 January in a US drone attack near Baghdad airport, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iraq’s PMF’s deputy commander. It led to a vote in Iraq’s parliament to expel all foreign forces, particularly the Americans, from Iraq.
US officials say they have intended to leave areas like al-Qaim since last year due to the reduced IS threat but concern for US security and coalition forces has accelerated the step.
Spate of attacks
The BBC was told by a former US military officer that Kataib Hezbollah’s proximity to the base was “a crucial factor in assessing the decision to transfer forces elsewhere.”
The United States is also preparing to withdraw from Qayara Airfield East, known as Q-West, and Kirkuk.
Qayara was the base that was used in the US-backed operation to take Mosul back from IS. In recent months both bases were struck by missile attacks. On 28 December, a US contractor was killed in a missile attack in Kirkuk.
Kataib Hezbollah was blamed for the attack, followed by U.S. airstrikes against the group headquarters in both Syria and Iraq, killing 25 people.
As of October 2019, at least 25 rocket attacks have targeted US bases in Iraq, unleashing more than 160 individual rockets.
Two attacks on the Taji base last week killed three members of the coalition, critically injuring two members of the Iraqi security forces.
But the US retaliatory attack on locations that the Americans say were Kataib Hezbollah munition storage facilities killed three Iraqi military personnel, two local police officers, and one civilian.
The attacks sowed relationships in the fight against IS between the Americans in Iraq and the army of the country, their hosts and original partners.
In an unusual move, the Iraqi Joint Operation Command, the control center for all military activity in Iraq, issued a declaration blaming both sides but backing the vote of the parliament to ask the Americans to go.
The official number of US troops in Iraq was estimated at as high as 5,200. It is not clear how many troops after the three base closures will be redeployed, as some will be transferred to other operating bases within the country.
It’s not certain the future of those remaining troops. The US is hoping its relationship with Iraq’s security forces is far from over, but many in Iraq believe that America has outstripped their welcome.