Iraqi Prime Minister Al Kadhimi: country does not need US combat troops

But premier says he wants American advise-and-assist mission that began during war on ISIS to continue

Iraq’s prime minister says his country no longer needs American combat troops to fight ISIS, but a formal timetable for their redeployment will depend on the outcome of talks with US officials this week.

Mustafa Al Kadhimi said Iraq will still ask for US training and military intelligence gathering. His comments were made in an interview with the Associated Press before a planned trip to Washington, where he’s scheduled to meet President Joe Biden on Monday for a fourth round of strategic talks.

What we want from the US presence in Iraq is to support our forces in training and developing their efficiency and capabilities, and in security co-operation
Iraqi PM Mustafa Al Kadhimi

“There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil,” said Mr Al Kadhimi, without announcing a deadline for a US troop departure. Iraq’s security forces and army are capable of defending the country without US-led coalition troops, he said.

But Mr Al Kadhimi said any withdrawal schedule would be based on the needs of Iraqi forces, who have shown themselves capable in the last year of conducting independent anti-ISIS missions.

“The war against IS and the readiness of our forces requires a special timetable, and this depends on the negotiations that we will conduct in Washington,” he said.

The US and Iraq agreed in April that the US transition to a train-and-advise mission meant the American combat role would end.

The American troop presence has remained at about 2,500 since late last year, when former president Donald Trump ordered a reduction from 3,000.

The US train-and-advise mission has its most recent origins in former President Barack Obama’s decision in 2014 to send troops back to Iraq. The move was made in response to ISIS taking over large portions of western and northern Iraq and a collapse of Iraqi security forces that appeared to threaten Baghdad. Mr Obama had fully withdrawn US forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after the US invasion.

“What we want from the US presence in Iraq is to support our forces in training and developing their efficiency and capabilities, and in security co-operation,” Mr Al Kadhimi said.

The Washington trip takes place as the Iraqi government has faced one setback after another, seriously undermining public confidence. Ongoing missile attacks by militia groups have underscored the limits of the state to prevent them and a series of devastating hospital fires amid surging coronavirus cases have left dozens dead.

Meanwhile, early federal elections, in line with a promise Mr Al Kadhimi made when he assumed office, are less than three months away.

Chief on the agenda in Washington, however, is the future of American-led coalition forces in Iraq.

Iraq declared victory over ISIS in late 2017 after a ruinous and bloody war. The continued presence of American troops has become a polarising issue among Iraq’s political class since the US-directed drone strike that killed powerful Iranian general Qassim Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis on Iraqi soil last year.

To quell the threat of widespread instability after the killings, the US and Iraq have held at least three rounds of strategic talks centring on Iraq’s military needs in the ongoing fight against ISIS and to formalise a timetable for withdrawal.

Four years since their territorial defeat, ISIS militants are still able to launch attacks in the capital and roam the country’s rugged northern region. Last week, a suicide bomber killed 30 people in a busy Baghdad marketplace. That attack was later claimed by ISIS.

Mr Al Kadhimi has faced significant pressure from mainly Shiite political parties to announce a timetable for a US troop withdrawal. Ongoing rocket and, more recently, drone attacks against the American military presence have also heaped pressure on the government. They are widely believed to be perpetrated by Iran-aligned Iraqi militia groups.

An announcement that combat troops will withdraw might serve to placate Shiite parties but will have little effect on the ground. The coalition’s combat mission effectively ended in November, according to Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein. Shiite parties have said they do not object to trainers or advisers who may remain as part of the coalition.

US and coalition officials have maintained that US troops are no longer accompanying Iraqi forces on ground missions and that coalition assistance is limited to intelligence gathering and surveillance and the use of advanced military technologies. Iraqi military officials have stressed they still need this support going forward.

“Iraq has a set of American weapons that need maintenance and training. We will ask the American side to continue to support our forces and develop our capabilities,” Mr Al Kadhimi said.

He assumed power as a consensus candidate after months of political jockeying between rival parliamentary blocs. On one side was cleric Moqtada Al Sadr’s coalition and on the other, paramilitary commander and former minister Hadi Al Ameri’s Fatah group.

The stakes were high: Mr Al Kadhimi’s predecessor had resigned after mass anti-government protests. At least 600 people were killed as Iraqi forces used live ammunition and teargas to disperse crowds.

Mr Al Kadhimi presented himself as a champion of protester demands and promised to hold early elections, now scheduled for October 10, and to bring to account the killers of activists, including whoever killed prominent commentator Hisham Al Hashimi outside his home last summer.

The arrest of an Interior Ministry employee in the shooting death of Al Hashimi fell short, many said, because it did not reveal which group ordered the killing.

Critics say Mr Al Kadhimi has not gone far enough. This is partly because the very conditions that facilitated his rise to the premiership have also served as his chief limitation in parliament.

Political opposition watered down ambitious economic reforms that took aim at Iraq’s bloated public sector when the country faced a disastrous financial crisis after falling oil prices. Without a party backing him in parliament, and with rival parties vying to control ministries and other state institutions, Mr Al Kadhimi’s government has appeared weak.

Repeated standoffs with Iran-backed militia groups after the arrests of militiamen suspected of launching attacks against the US Embassy and US troops have further tarnished the government’s credibility.

Activists whose cries for elections once resonated in the squares of the capital now say they will boycott the October polls, distrustful that the political establishment could ever produce free and fair elections.

A UN monitoring mission has been established in hopes of boosting voter turnout. But protesters have taken to the streets recently and expressed outrage over the rise in killings of prominent activists and journalists. Even Mr Al Kadhimi conceded certain forces were actively seeking to undermine the polls.

“We are in a sensitive situation. We need to calm the political situation until we reach the elections,” he said.

Mr Al Kadhimi has managed to prove his mettle in one arena, that of regional mediator. Iraq’s friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran have brought both countries to the negotiation table for at least two rounds of talks in Baghdad.

“Iraq has succeeded in gaining the trust of these countries, and accordingly, it is working towards the stability of the region,” he said.

Updated: July 25th 2021, 11:12 AM