Al Sudani says he is not opposed to keeping US forces in Iraq

About 2,500 US troops still in country alongside allied forces

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani. Reuters
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Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani has said he is not opposed to a continued US troop presence in Iraq, a statement that is likely to anger Iran-backed militias aligned to his political coalition.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr Al Sudani said that the “elimination of ISIS needs some more time”, when asked about the US troop presence, which has been authorised by the Iraqi government to train the Iraqi army since 2014.

About 2,500 US soldiers remain in Iraq, from a high of over 5,000 during the war against ISIS between 2014 and 2018. The small contingent was deployed to Iraq following a withdrawal of US forces in 2011 after eight years of occupation. At its peak, the force numbered 170,000 in 2007, when Iraq was beset with sectarian violence and fighting between international coalition forces and insurgents.

In the interim period, between December 2011 and the summer of 2014, ISIS attacks surged throughout Iraq.

During the war to defeat the group, small contingents of coalition forces assisted the Baghdad government and Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

US-Iran rivalry

Despite their role being almost entirely limited to training — some coalition special forces were deployed on combat missions with Iraqi government permission — their involvement in the war was strongly opposed by Iran-linked political parties and militias.

The militias were part of a coalition of groups known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces linked to the largest political bloc in Iraq’s parliament, the Co-ordination Framework.

During the war to expel ISIS from Iraqi cities, Iran-backed militias refrained from launching attacks on Coalition forces. But as soon as ISIS attacks plummeted, after the battle of Mosul in 2017, the PMF stepped up attacks.

There followed two years of violence between the US and the militias, escalating until a US military contractor was killed in December 2019.

The US then launched a drone strike on the leader of the PMF, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis and Iranian Quds Force general Qassem Suleimani, killing them both.

Earlier this month, Mr Al Sudani attended a memorial service for both of the men, alongside the president of Iraq Latif Rashid and the head of Iraq’s judiciary, Faiq Zaidan.

The PMF and allied politicians aligned to Mr Al Sudani, most notably Qais Al Khazali — who founded the US-designated terror group Asaib Ahl Al Haq — continue to insist that US forces leave Iraq. Mr Al Khazali’s Sadiqun party now controls the higher education ministry.

Successive Iraqi governments have resisted their demands, saying the foreign forces provide important support to stop an ISIS resurgence.

Since losing its last urban stronghold of Mosul in 2017, the group has been confined to remote, rugged terrain, launching only sporadic attacks.

Mr Al Sudani said in the interview that he believed Iraq could maintain good ties with both Iran and the US, something multiple Iraqi governments have attempted over the past 10 years.

“I don’t see this as an impossible matter, to see Iraq have a good relationship with Iran and the US,” Mr Al Sudani told the newspaper.

Updated: January 15, 2023, 6:01 PM