US reiterates commitment to reduce troops from Iraq

Washington's strategic dialogue 'recommits' security and economic partnership with Baghdad

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Barker (R) shakes hands with Iraqi General Mohammed Fadel (C), wearing face mask and gloves, following the outbreak of coronvavirus disease (COVID-19), during the hand over of Qayyarah Airfield West from US-led coalition forces to Iraqi Security Forces, in the south of Mosul, Iraq March 26, 2020.    REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani/File Photo. To match Special Report IRAQ-IRAN/MOSUL

The United States said it reiterated its commitment to reduce the size of its forces in Iraq during discussions on the future of their military, political and economic relations.

Washington and Baghdad held talks on Thursday to restore their relations after months of heightened tension between Iraq’s two main allies, Iran and the US.

"The two countries recognised that in light of significant progress towards eliminating the ISIS threat, over the coming months the US would continue reducing forces from Iraq," the US State Department said.

Washington will discuss with the Iraqi government the status of remaining forces, it said.

Since 2014, the main mission of US troops deployed in Iraq has been to defeat ISIS.

Officials in the US-led coalition say Iraqi troops are now mostly able to handle the insurgents on their own.

“The United States reiterated that it does not seek nor request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq,” the State Department said.

The Iraqi government renewed its commitment to protect US and international troops during the talks.

Western military trainers are expected to remain in Iraq, but it is not clear how many.

The United States has had around 5,000 troops stationed in the country, and coalition allies another 2,500.

Tension heightened between the US and Iran after an American drone strike killed Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani in January near Baghdad International Airport.

It resulted in Iran-backed attacks on American troops stationed in Iraq. The threat of attacks led the US to pull troops out of three Iraqi bases in March.

After the attacks, Iraqi members of Parliament passed a non-binding resolution in January to remove foreign forces from the country.

David Schenker, the State Department’s top Middle East official, said that Washington "made it clear that we will continue to assist the Iraqi government, not only at the security level but also in implementing the required reforms."

Mr Schenker said that Iranian-backed Iraqi militias were working against the US.

"Iran is promoting sectarian division, which fuels extremism and terrorism," he said after the talks ended.

The US delegation at the dialogue was led by undersecretary of state David Hale.

Abdul Karim Hashim, the deputy minister for foreign affairs, led the Iraqi delegation, who outlined the country's economic troubles.

Before the talks, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi said their success would depend on “the opinion of the Marjaiya [the top Shiite religious authority], Parliament and Iraq’s urgent needs".

“The aim of my government is to achieve fair elections, ensure the economy does not collapse and preserve Iraq’s integrity,” Mr Al Kadhimi said.

"We do not want Iraq to be a ground for conflict."

The relationship between Baghdad and Washington, and the presence of US forces in the country, is based on a strategic framework agreement signed in 2008.

The agreement called for close defence co-operation to deter threats to Iraqi “sovereignty, security and territorial integrity".

Militia leader, Qais Al Khazali, said on Thursday that US forces who chose to stay in Iraq should not have immunity.

Mr Al Khazali's statement portrayed a calmer tone compared to his usual remarks that US troops should leave Iraq.

The US State Department said this year that it had designated Mr Al Khazali and his brother, Laith Al Khazali, as specially designated global terrorists.

Mr Al Khazali is the head of Asaib Ahl Al Haq, which the US designated as a foreign terrorist organisation in January.

He has advocated that Iraq should be free of foreign influence.

But Washington says his militia group is a proxy for Iran.