Talks set to end anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq but security concerns linger

Calls growing in Iraq for withdrawal of about 2,500 US troops in the country

Talks between American and Iraqi officials will reportedly focus on the next phase of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. AFP
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Washington and Baghdad will soon begin formal talks that could end the presence of the anti-ISIS military coalition in Iraq, both governments said on Thursday, though questions remain as to whether Iraqi forces are ready to fight extremists unassisted.

US combat forces left Iraq in 2011 following the 2003 invasion, but thousands were sent back in 2014 to help Baghdad defeat ISIS.

The sustained US presence, as well as a series of strikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, has led to increasing calls for the Americans to leave again.

This month, Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani said the government was beginning the process of removing the US-led military coalition.

In a statement, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said discussions would take place as part of a higher military commission that was agreed upon last year to discuss the “transition to an enduring bilateral security partnership between Iraq and the United States”.

"The Iraqi-American Higher Military Committee will resume dialogue in the coming days," Iraqi state media quoted Defence Minister Thabet Al Abbasi as saying.

"The withdrawal dates for the coalition forces will then be determined and joint co-operation relations will be built between Iraq, the United States and the coalition countries in various political, economic, cultural, security and military fields that are consistent with the vision of the Iraqi government."

He added that the Iraqi armed forces "are fully prepared for the withdrawal of the coalition forces and to take full control of security in the country".

But a senior western diplomat, whose country is a major contributor to the anti-ISIS coalition, told The National that Iraqi forces are not yet ready to suppress the terror group without more training.

The diplomat said his country would accept the end of the training mission and a transition to bilateral security arrangements, but cautioned against making decisions too quickly.

“If the Iraqis insist on finishing the coalition, we will, of course, accept that and move to bilateral co-operation. But there are real dangers to Iraq’s security if that happens too quickly,” said the diplomat.

“Western countries want to complete their training of the Iraqi security forces. They do not want to see a repeat of the mistakes of 2010-2014.

“The Iraqi army is stronger than it was but still lacks certain skills and is heavily dependent on the coalition for intelligence and logistics.”

The US leads a multinational mission of about 3,000 troops. The majority, from the US, are complemented by a Nato mission to advise and assist Iraqi security forces, including the air force.

Dutch, French, British, Italian, Australian and Canadian forces have been involved in support, while France also has a security arrangement with Baghdad.

Struggle against ISIS

The US-led anti-ISIS coalition was formed in 2014 after several Iraqi army divisions, comprising tens of thousands of soldiers, collapsed in the face of ISIS, which ultimately took over about a third of the country.

Analysts later identified chronic deficiencies in the Iraqi army including rampant corruption that eroded morale and hastened the collapse of their forces.

International forces subsequently resumed training in 2014 and sent supporting air power to strike ISIS, amid an uneasy truce with Iran-backed militias.

But since 2017, when ISIS was almost entirely defeated in the battle of Mosul, clashes have escalated between US forces and the Iran-linked militias, who are part of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces, an official branch of the security services.

US-Iraq talks

The announcement of the talks follows a major escalation between the US and Iran-backed groups, after Kataib Hezbollah, which has worked closely with Tehran, launched ballistic missiles at the largest Iraqi-US base at Al Asad in western Iraq.

No American personnel were killed – although one Iraqi was injured – but the US has retaliated with air strikes on the militia and allied groups.

US forces, which are stationed with Iraqi and Kurdish troops in two major bases in western Iraq and the northern Kurdish region, as well as at a smaller base in Baghdad, have faced about 150 attacks from Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria since October 7, when the militias increased their attacks amid the war in Gaza.

The talks come at a time of increased instability in the Middle East, with Israel embroiled in its conflict in Gaza and a rise in attacks on Red Sea shipping by Yemen's Houthi rebels.

Since the Israel-Gaza war began, there has been an increase in attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed militias, with about 150 incidents recorded so far.

In response, the US has carried out a series of strikes on targets in Syria as well as Iraq, with the latest occurring on Tuesday to the south of Baghdad against Kataib Hezbollah.

Updated: January 25, 2024, 7:02 PM