WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden said Monday the U.S. will end its combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year.
“We’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat zone,” Biden said at the start of an Oval Office meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
Biden said U.S. troops would continue to train and assist Iraqi forces as they continue to battle the Islamic State, or ISIS.
The U.S. still has about 2,500 troops in Iraq after a series of draw-downs in recent years. Their assignments include counter-terrorism operations and training Iraqi security forces. America’s military presence in Iraq became a flashpoint between the two allies after the Trump administration in 2020 targeted a top Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
“There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil,” al-Kadhimi told the Associated Press on Sunday. Al-Kadhimi did not provide a timeline for American troops to leave, but he said Iraq’s security forces and army are capable of defending the country without U.S.-led coalition troops.
However, he emphasized that Iraq will still seek U.S. military assistance in training and intelligence gathering.
During a briefing at the White House Monday, press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say how many U.S. troops would remain in Iraq.
“The numbers will be driven by what is needed for the mission over time,” Psaki said. “The real announcement today … is about a change of mission.”
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the drawdown of U.S. combat troops would ease the political pressure on al-Kadhimi from the pro-Iranian militia forces and Iraq’s internal tensions.
It also reflects Biden’s interest in “putting a real end to the U.S. combat role in Iraq.”
“But the problem you have … is this is not a stable popular government,” Cordesman added. “And when you talk about these shifts, there aren’t exactly binding.”
If the military situation in the region changes or there’s a massive rebirth of terrorism in the coming months, U.S. troops could be rapidly deployed, he said.
Still, the move was praised by experts at the Quincy Institute, which promotes restraint in U.S. foreign policy.
Trita Parsi, the institute’s executive vice president, called the announcement “the next logical step” after the military’s announced withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“It puts Biden on the right path toward fulfilling his promise to leave the Middle East militarily, where the defense of vital U.S. interests does not warrant any permanent military bases in the region,” he said in a statement. “While the potential resurgence of a terrorist group such as ISIS may warrant further U.S. military action, permanent bases in Iraq are neither necessary nor helpful.”
Delegates for the two countries said in April the mission of U.S. forces in Iraq has shifted to training and advisory roles, allowing for the redeployment of combat forces remaining in the country. Statements from both sides said the timing of the redeployment would be determined in upcoming talks but also stressed the need for continued cooperation on security.
Iraqi leaders faced intense domestic pressure to negotiate an exit by U.S. troops exit after former President Donald Trump ordered the drone strike that killed Soleimani, who led an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The strike also killed an Iraqi military official, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was the deputy commander of an Iranian-backed militia group.
Iraqi officials said the U.S. strike was a violation of their country’s sovereignty.
Iraqi foreign minister, Fuad Hussein, said in an interview last week with Voice of America’s Kurdish Service that he expected an agreement to be announced that U.S. fighting forces will not remain in Iraq.
“When they exit is related to a timeline agreed on by both sides, as well as technical matters and other issues related to the security of the forces,” Hussein said.
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Other issues likely to be on the agenda for Biden’s meeting with Kadhimi include economic, security and cultural matters.
On Friday, the Biden administration announced it is providing nearly $155 million in additional humanitarian assistance to Iraq, as well as refugees in the region and the communities hosting them. The funding, from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, will be used to provide shelter, health care, emergency food assistance, protection and water and sanitation services throughout the country.
The U.S. has provided more than $200 million in humanitarian support to Iraq this fiscal year and more than $3 billion since 2014.
“In many ways,” Cordesman said, “the government needs economic and civil aid even more than it needs military aid.”
Michael Collins and Maureen Groppe cover the White House. Follow Collins on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS and Groppe at @mgroppe.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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