US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has said Washington is committed to keeping troops in Iraq during an unannounced visit to Baghdad, shortly before the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion.
The Pentagon chief arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday morning after meeting Jordan's King Abdullah on Monday, discussing regional security and violence in the occupied West Bank.
Mr Austin said the US “will continue to strengthen and broaden our partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability, and sovereignty” after meeting Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani.
“US forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government”, Mr Austin said.
Iraq announced the end of combat operations by US-led coalition forces at the end of 2021.
But about 2,500 US troops remain in Iraq to assist and advise local forces in fighting ISIS remnants, while about 900 are based in Kurdish-controlled north-east Syria.
"We must be able to operate safely and securely to continue this vital work", Mr Austin said, thanking Mr Sudani and Iraqi Defence Minister Thabet Al Abbasi for "their commitment to ensure that the coalition forces in Iraq ... will be protected from state and non-state actors".
In recent years, bases hosting coalition forces have come under drone and rocket attacks, which have been blamed on pro-Iranian factions.
His comments come shortly before the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.
Mr Austin was the last commanding general of US forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and oversaw the withdrawal of troops between 2010 and 2011.
"I am optimistic about the future of our partnership", Mr Austin told reporters.
"The United States will continue to strengthen and broaden out partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability and sovereignty."
The Iraqi premier told Mr Austin he also wanted to "strengthen and consolidate relations" with Washington, and underlined Baghdad's commitment to "maintaining balanced relations with the regional and international powers".
The visit will show Washington's commitment to retaining forces in the country, an official from the US defence department said.
“What Iraqis will hear from him is commitment to retaining our force presence, but it's not just about the military instrument. The US is broadly interested in a strategic partnership with the government of Iraq”, Reuters cited the unnamed official as saying.
US troops returned to Iraq in 2014 at the request of the Iraqi government, leading the global coalition to defeat ISIS.
Their presence is controversial and has been met with fierce opposition from Iran-backed groups in Iraq, who often target military bases hosting US troops.
Iraq's parliament voted to expel foreign troops following the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of Quds Force, a division of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis at Baghdad airport in January 2020.
Commanders in the semi-autonomous Kurdish north have said US troops must remain to prevent an ISIS resurgence.
Mr Austin had made no mention of visiting Iraq when departing for his Middle East tour last week.
He is next scheduled to visit Egypt and Israel amid heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.