Within months, U.S. forces in Iraq will end their combat duties there, President Joe Biden announced on Monday during a White House meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
In response to reporters’ questions in the Oval Office, Biden, alongside the Iraqi leader, said the new role for American troops in Iraq will be ”to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS (Islamic State group) as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.”
Biden declined to say how many U.S. troops, of the current level of approximately 2,500, will remain there
“This is a shift in mission. It is not a removal of our partnership or our presence or our close engagement with Iraqi leaders,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained to reporters just prior to the Oval Office meeting.
U.S. troops in Iraq “are capable of doing multiple things,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a group of reporters in Alaska on Saturday.
Asked by VOA whether he would classify the American troops currently in Iraq as combat forces or primarily devoted to training, advising and assisting, Austin replied: “I think trying to make that distinction is very difficult. But I would say that the key will be what we’re purposed, what we’re tasked to do at any given time.”
The emphasis, officials say, will remain on ensuring there is not a repeat of what occurred seven years ago, when the Islamic State group swept through Mosul and tens of thousands of foreign fighters poured into Iraq and neighboring Syria. Iraqi government forces nearly collapsed, and there were dozens of suicide bombings monthly.
“As we always said from the beginning, nobody is going to declare ‘mission accomplished,'” a senior U.S. official told reporters on a briefing call on the eve of the Iraqi prime minister’s visit. “The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS. We recognize you have to keep pressure on these networks as they seek to reconstitute, but the role for U.S. forces and coalition forces can very much recede, you know, deep into the background where we are training, advising, sharing intelligence, helping with logistics. And that’s about where we are now.”
The United States and Iraq agreed in April to change the American troops’ mission, which had begun in 2015 and focused on training and advisory roles assisting Iraqi security forces, but there was no timeline for completing the transition.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein told VOA’s Kurdish Service last week he expected the two sides to agree on an end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.
“Largely, the shift is emblematic of the role the Biden administration wants the U.S. military to play in the counterterrorism fight: supporting partners through training and other forms of assistance while those partners take the lead in counterterrorism operations,” Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA. “The approach relies heavily on America’s partners to be good partners, however. They must both continue to prioritize counterterrorism and not act in such a way as to further fuel the problem.”
Monday’s White House meeting came amid continued attacks against U.S. military positions in Iraq that the United States blames on Iran-linked militias.
On July 24, a pro-Iranian militia commander issued a statement threatening to attack U.S. forces inside the country and calling for a withdrawal of troops.
A drone attack Saturday hit a military base in Iraqi Kurdistan that hosts American troops.
Attacks in Baghdad in January and April of this year underscore the Islamic State group’s “resilience despite heavy counter-terrorism pressure from Iraqi authorities,” according to a United Nations report issued Friday that predicted the group “will continue to prioritize consolidating and resurging in its core area, encouraged by the political difficulties that inhibit stabilization and recovery” in Iraq and Syria.
The presence of U.S. troops is a polarizing subject in Iraq, with some citing the need for U.S. military support for Iraq’s security forces and others, including Iran-linked political factions, calling for the American troops to leave.
“There’s no doubt that the Biden administration is capitalizing on the “end the endless wars” narrative,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VOA. “These conflicts, however, were not borne out of social or political vacuums, and the violence and threats to U.S. interests emanating from these theaters and actors within them will not end with a unilateral withdrawal or drawdown.”
Taleblu further warned that Iran is likely to celebrate an announcement of a reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq, saying it “helps provide a footnote to the Iranian narrative that America can be forced out of the region and that working against the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary foreign policy in the region is futile.”
Carla Babb in Singapore and Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.