Coalition forces begin withdrawal from Iraq, says Iraqi army

Agreement comes as part of prime minister’s deal with Washington

American soldiers are seen during a handover ceremony of the Taji military base to Iraqi security forces near Baghdad, Iraq. Reuters
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Troops forming part of the international coalition set up to fight ISIS in Iraq have withdrawn towards Kuwait, the Iraqi army said on Monday.

The US, which is leading an international coalition in Iraq, has been working closely with the Iraqi military to battle ISIS sleeper cells across the country since the defeat of the group in 2017.

“The international coalition troops that withdrew towards Kuwait are the first forces to withdraw from Iraq,” Yehia Rasool, Iraq’s military spokesman said.

“The withdrawal is part of the outcome of the strategic dialogue, especially after Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi's visit to Washington,” Mr Rasool said in comments to state news agency INA.

The withdrawal process will continue until December 31, he said.

The Iraqi official said the troops that will remain behind are advisers who will train the country’s forces.

“These forces are not combative because the Iraqi forces are the ones who will fight and liberate the country,” he said.

Washington has around 2,500 troops stationed in Iraq out of the 3,500 the international coalition set up to fight ISIS in 2014.

Under former US president Donald Trump, the majority of American troops that were sent as part of the coalition were withdrawn.

Those who remain are officially classed as advisers and trainers for Iraq’s army and counter-terrorism units.

Mr Al Kadhimi’s recent visit to the US concluded with an agreement to formally end the US combat mission in Iraq by 2021. However, American troops will still operate in the country on an advisory basis.

“Our role in Iraq will be … to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission,” US President Joe Biden told reporters after meeting Mr Al Kadhimi in the Oval Office.

Iraq’s prime minister has faced increasing pressure from Iran-aligned parties and paramilitary groups who oppose America’s military role in the country.

Militias have demanded the departure of US troops since the killing of Iran's Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani along with top Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in a US drone strike in 2020.

Washington has blamed the militias for conducting dozens of attacks against US interests in Iraq since the beginning of 2020.

For months, Baghdad has taken up a new role as a mediator between Iran and Arab states to ease tension in the region.

Mr Al Kadhimi is set to host a regional summit at the end of August, with French President Emmanuel Macron also scheduled to attend.

It would be Mr Macron’s second visit to Iraq in less than a year.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia's King Salman have also been invited, although an exact date or confirmation for their visits has not been announced.

Baghdad has not said whether Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will attend.

Since defeating ISIS in 2017, Baghdad has been attempting to ease tension between the US and Iran.

A first round of direct, face-to-face discussions between rivals Riyadh and Tehran was hosted in Baghdad in early April, signalling a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that has spilt into neighbouring countries.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia collapsed in 2016.

Iraq has been the scene of rocket attacks carried out by pro-Iranian groups against foreign troops stationed around the country, so the rebuilding of ties between regional foes will work in Baghdad’s favour.

Updated: August 09, 2021, 4:07 PM