US troops to stay in Iraq regardless of redeployment efforts, official says

US-led coalition announced significant troop withdrawal from four military bases in country

US army commander Jace Neuenschwander (L) and Iraq Nineveh Operations Commander Major General Noman Zawbai (C) and Iraq’s Staff Major General Mohammad Fadhel Abbas sign documents during a handover ceremony at a base for the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) group, in Mosul in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh during a handover ceremony to Iraqi forces on March 30, 2020. The US-led coalition is temporarily withdrawing training forces from Iraq as a protective measure against the novel coronavirus, a senior official in the alliance said on Thursday.  / AFP / Zaid AL-OBEIDI
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The US said on Tuesday that its troops would not leave Iraq soon, but soldiers from some member states of the international anti-ISIS coalition will return home or move elsewhere in the region.

In recent weeks, the US-led coalition announced a significant troop withdrawal from four military bases in the country.

It said the move was part of an agreement with the Iraqi government and coalition partners.

"The US is not withdrawing from Iraq," a US State Department official told The National. "We are committed to a partnership and friendship with Iraq."

The “redeployments were pre-planned and based on the success that we and our partners have had against ISIS", the official said.

Until last month, there were about 7,500 coalition troops in the country, including 5,000 US troops.

"Some of the troops departing from bases in Iraq will return to their home nations, and some will be moved to other bases within the region," coalition spokesman Col Myles Caggins told The National.

The coalition said it could not disclose the number of troops or locations because of security concerns.

Iraqi military bases hosting foreign troops have come under deadly rocket attacks in the past few months.

Washington has blamed the attacks on Iran-backed elements of the Hashed Al Shaabi, a military network formally integrated into Iraq's security forces.

The attacks have heightened tension between Tehran and Washington.

The handover of bases coincides with the increased threat against US troops and this probably helped to accelerate the process, said Sajad Jiyad, a political analyst in Baghdad.

“The US mission in Iraq has been under review for a while and the pullout from these bases was always part of the plan, but it makes even more sense now as tensions have increased over the past few months,” Mr Jiyad said.

“Concentrating troops in key areas poses less risks to force protection than spreading them over more bases.”

Coalition forces left the K1 Air Base in the northern city of Kirkuk this week. It was the site of a rocket attack in late December that killed a US contractor.

It started a series of retaliatory attacks between the US and Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups, which resulted in the US killing top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani and senior Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in January.

US President Donald Trump’s administration regards American interests in the context of Iraq, said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

"In that sense, the remaining US presence in Iraq, to say nothing of the US presence in the region, is more than enough to meet this administration's perceived objectives," Mr Haddad said.

He said that the US’s Middle East policies could not be “compartmentalised so neatly”, especially with the outbreak of the coronavirus and Iraq’s political and social unrest.

Future withdrawal?

The US has reduced its presence to a smaller number of bases with missile defences in Iraq, said Michael Knights, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Washington stationed Patriot air defence batteries at Iraqi bases this week to protect its troops.

One of the batteries was sent to Ain Al Asad airbase last week and the other to a base in Erbil, capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

They are capable of destroying ballistic missiles.

“Unless the Iraqi government can stop the attacks on coalition bases, the coalition will leave Iraq this year, except perhaps the Kurdistan region,” Mr Knights said.

If the coalition decides to leave, then ISIS can slowly make a comeback, he said.

“Within a year, Baghdad would be suffering regular mass casualty bombings," Mr Knights said.

"Last time, it was only two and half years before the US was asked to come back.”

The US military presence in Iraq will depend on Iraqi consensus to keep American forces there, said Abbas Khadim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

“If such consensus is not attained, it will be very hard for the US to keep troops in Iraq against the Iraqi will without risking long-term damage to relations and possible harm to the troops,” Mr Abbas said.

The decision may be made after the new government is formed in Baghdad, Mr Jiyad said, but political and security events in Iraq might also dictate this move.

“It is likely that some US troops will leave Iraq this year as the original mission they deployed for has changed following the territorial defeat of ISIS,” he said

Could Iraq battle terrorism without coalition support?

Iraq’s security forces can fight ISIS without the support of the coalition but “may not be as effective without the significant support that foreign partners have provided”, Mr Jiyad said.

Battling and defeating an enemy such as ISIS requires more than conventional tactics and warfare, and this is something for which the Iraqi Security Forces rely on support from the coalition, he said.