US President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Monday signed an agreement that said the US' combat mission in Iraq will formally end by end of 2021. the US forces, however, will stay back in an advisory role. The agreement comes at the heels of the US troops withdrawal process from Afghanistan- US troops in Afghanistan is expected to be complete by September.
Iraqi PM al-Khadimi had been facing extreme pressure from Iran-aligned parties and paramilitary groups who oppose the US military presence in the country. “Our role in Iraq will be ... to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises, but we're not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission,” Biden told Reuters, after his meeting with Khadimi at the Oval office.
US troops entered Iraq in 2003 alleging that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was removed from power but no such weapons were found. Former US president Barack Obama withdrew US troops from Iraq in 2011 but deployed them again in 2014 after the Islamic State took over large areas of western and northern Iraq.
Currently, there are 2,500 US troops in Iraq, helping Iraqi troops to counter remnants of the IS. The US troops will now focus on training and advising the Iraqi military. The shift is not expected to have a major operational impact.
Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa a-Khadhimi on Sunday said his country no longer requires American combat troops to fight the Islamic State group.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi told AP that Iraq will still ask for US training and military intelligence gathering.
There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil, said al-Kadhimi, falling short of announcing a deadline for a US troop departure. Iraq's security forces and army are capable of defending the country without US-led coalition troops, he said.
But al-Kadhimi said any withdrawal schedule would be based on the needs of Iraqi forces, who have shown themselves capable in the last year of conducting independent anti-IS missions.
Indeed, the IS terror organization is a shell of its former self since it was largely routed on the battlefield in 2017. Still, it has shown it can still carry out high-casualty attacks. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens in a busy suburban Baghdad market.
The US and Iraq agreed in April that the US transition to a train-and-advise mission meant the US combat role would end, but they didn't settle on a timetable for completing that transition. The announcement comes less than three months before parliamentary elections slated for October 10.
Al-Kadhimi faces no shortage of problems. Iranian-backed militias operating inside Iraq have stepped up attacks against US forces in recent months, and a series of devastating hospital fires that left dozens of people dead and soaring coronavirus infections have added fresh layers of frustration for the nation.
For al-Kadhimi, the ability to offer the Iraqi public a date for the end of the US combat presence could be a feather in his cap ahead of the election.
Biden administration officials say al-Kadhimi also deserves credit for improving Iraq's standing in the Mideast.
Last month, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited Baghdad for joint meetings the first time an Egyptian president has made an official visit since the 1990s, when ties were severed after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
In March, Pope Francis made an historic visit to Iraq, praying among ruined churches in Mosul, a former IS stronghold, and meeting with the influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf.
The Pentgaon, for years, have tried to balance what they see as a necessary military presence to support the Iraqi government's fight against IS with domestic political sensitivities in Iraq to a foreign troop presence. A major complication for both sides is the periodic attacks on bases housing US and coalition troops by Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran.
The vulnerability of US troops was demonstrated most dramatically in January 2020 when Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on al-Asad air base in western Iraq. No Americans were killed, but dozens suffered traumatic brain injury from the blasts. That attack came shortly after a US drone strike killed Iranian military commander Qassim Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad International Airport.
– With PTI inputs