US and Iraq hint at American combat troop withdrawal

Two countries have not established timetable for withdrawal and future US role remains unclear

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 26, 2020, a US soldier walks at the Qayyarah air base, where US-led troops in 2017 had helped Iraqis plan out the fight against the Islamic State in nearby Mosul in northern Iraq, before a planned US pullout. The United States agreed in talks on April 7, 2021 with Iraq to remove all remaining combat forces deployed to fight Islamic State extremists, although US forces will still provide training. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
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Washington and Baghdad have agreed on removing US combat forces from Iraq but have not established a timetable, and American troops could remain in an advisory capacity.

Wednesday's joint announcement came at the end of a strategic dialogue between high-ranking officials from the two countries, led by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fuad Hussein.

“Based on the increasing capacity of the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], the parties confirmed that the mission of US and coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq, with the timing to be established in coming technical talks,” the statement read.

The statement reaffirmed the countries' “mutual intention to continue bilateral security co-ordination and co-operation".

The announcement did not refer to the future posts of US advisory troops supporting the ISF in their counter-ISIS mission.

Instead, it focused on the mission largely shifting from combat to training and assisting since the collapse of ISIS's so-called caliphate.

“The transition of the US and other international forces away from combat operations to training, equipping and assisting the ISF reflects the success of their strategic partnership and ensures support to the ISF 's continued efforts to ensure ISIS can never again threaten Iraq’s stability.”

Most of the 2,500 US troops stationed in Iraq are there in an advisory capacity. It is unknown how many American combat troops remain there.

It is also unclear whether Wednesday's announcement has significant ramifications for future US troop levels.

The mission has for a long time been largely "advise and assist", Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said after the announcement.

“There was no specific agreement of a certain date or a number of troops by a certain date,” Mr Kirby said.

“It was a reaffirmation of what we always believed about the mission there – that it wouldn’t be a permanent one.

“Both sides agree that the mission is still important and that we’re going to continue as we always will, in any operational environment, to review and look again at our footprint and our force posture, and determine whether it is appropriately sized and scoped to the mission.

“The invitation by the Iraqi government is still in place," he said.

U.S. soldiers are seen during a handover ceremony of Taji military base from US-led coalition troops to Iraqi security forces, in the base north of Baghdad, Iraq August 23, 2020. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

"We’re continuing as we have been before today’s talks to continue talking about what that mission and what that footprint is supposed to look like.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi echoed a similar line in an exclusive interview with The National published on Tuesday.

He said the US troops in Iraq were there to “training, equipping and providing intelligence support for the Iraqi forces. We believe the Iraqi forces are ready for this transition".

Mr Al Kadhimi, who initiated the request for the dialogue, faces intense pressure from Iran-backed factions, including rogue militias, as well as the Sadrist movement to remove US forces from the country.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, April 4, 2021.  Interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi by Mina Al-Oraibi, editor-in-chief of The National.
Victor Besa/The National
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Iran-backed militias have resumed repeated attacks on US forces in Iraq since President Joe Biden took office in January.

The attacks prompted Mr Biden to launch an air strike on two Iraqi militias stationed in Syria in February.

“This is a first Biden step in what will be a long series of similar discussions,” said Douglas Silliman, former US ambassador to Iraq and the president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“They’re going to find some sort of medium solution that both Washington and Baghdad can be happy with.

“Although I’m certain that nothing that comes out of this is going to meet the expectations of the resistance fronts and the militia groups that have been attacking American and coalition and Iraqi forces over the past several months."

Mr Biden has echoed former president Donald Trump’s words with repeated vows to “end endless wars”, reflecting the will of an American public that is increasingly sceptical of foreign military entanglements.

A YouGov poll commissioned by the Charles Koch Institute last year found that about three quarters of Americans favour withdrawing US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Whether those words are from Donald Trump or Joe Biden, there's public support to reduce the number of Americans in harm's way," Mr Silliman said before the announcement.

"The Biden administration is focused more right now on the [May 1 Afghanistan withdrawal] deadline that's coming up very quickly.

"They will settle for meeting Kadhimi halfway in showing good faith and reducing American combat forces on the ground.”

He was optimistic about the Iraqi Security Forces’ increased ability to battle ISIS and other terrorist groups over the past two years, saying Baghdad launched more air strikes last month than US-led coalition forces.

“The Iraqi Security Forces have become more confident at counter-insurgency operations,” Mr Silliman said.

“They have done a better job developing their own intelligence cycle and locating threats, going in to neutralise, collect intelligence and then trying to turn that into more operations in the future.”

But Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the ISF was overall in a worse position than it was in 2014 when ISIS swept across the country and Syria.

Mr Wahab said that any premature withdrawal could lead to a similar situation, similar to president Barack Obama’s 2012 withdrawal of US troops from Iraq after a failure to reach an agreement with former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki.

“The Iraqi top brass says that the readiness of the Iraqi military today is worse than it was in 2014, which means that the prime minister cannot say we don’t need the Americans," Mr Wahab said.

“We can’t stand on our feet and fight ISIS."

The US was eager to play down the language on American forces in the joint statement, seeking instead to highlight the myriad other issues addressed in the communique.

The joint statement indirectly praised Iraq’s efforts to lessen its reliance on Iranian natural gas for its electricity sector and its deepening ties with the Gulf states, including the UAE.

“The United States expressed its support for Iraq’s efforts to reform is power sector so that its citizens have cheaper and more reliable electricity and fewer shortages,” the statement said.

“Both countries affirmed their support for Iraq diversifying its sources of energy by building grater ties to its neighbours in Jordan and in the Gulf Co-operation Council, including by moving forward with electric grid interconnection projects.”

Mr Kadhimi visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia last weekend, securing more than $6 billion in investments from the countries.