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US, Iraq to start talks over possible finish to coalition presence

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is expected to begin dialogue with the Iraqi government about the future presence of the 2,500 US troops who remain in the country in the wake of the war against the Islamic State group.

A US military official said Washington and Baghdad are “close to a consensus on starting” the discussions, which were agreed to in Aug. 2023 in order to plan ways to transform the US-led international troop presence in Iraq into a normal defense and security relationship.

Why now: The dialogue under the so-called Higher Military Commission was delayed due to the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel and the resulting war in the Gaza Strip.

It is now expected to be held after Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has said he would seek from Washington a timeline for an end to the coalition’s presence in Iraq.

Sudani faces increasing domestic pressure to expel US troops from the country after the US military launched a series of airstrikes targeting Iran-backed militia personnel and facilities in Iraq in recent weeks.

The strikes, authorized by the Pentagon and ordered by top the US commander in the Middle East, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, came in as part of a bid to halt an ongoing stream of rocket, missile and drone attacks on bases used by US forces. 

The attacks began Oct. 17, after Israel was accused of bombing a hospital in the Gaza Strip. There have been more than 150 such attacks on US positions in Iraq and Syria thus far. On Sunday, Iraq’s Ain al-Asad airbase was targeted by at least a dozen projectiles in the largest volley thus far involving ballistic missiles.

US Patriot systems intercepted many of the incoming rounds, but Pentagon officials said two ballistic missiles got through the air defenses, damaging facilities, wounding an Iraqi service member and leaving four American military personnel with symptoms of suspected traumatic brain injuries.

A US military official speaking to Al-Monitor said the timing of the dialogue with Baghdad had no connection to the recent attacks. “We have been discussing this for months,” the official said.

The official clarified that there has been no decision to withdraw US troops from Iraq. 

“The HMC is a venue to discuss the transition of the D-ISIS Coalition to an enduring bilateral security partnership between Iraq and the United States,” the official said.

“The two sides will discuss how the mission could evolve on a timeline according to several factors, including the threat from ISIS, operational environment and Iraqi forces’ capabilities.”

Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said the US envoy in Baghdad, Ambassador Alisa Romanowski, delivered a letter to Iraq’s top diplomat, Fuad Hussein, on Wednesday, without specifying its contents.

A spokesperson for the State Department did not immediately reply to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.

Why it matters: The Islamic State group has largely gone underground in Iraq, more than four years after its final holdout was defeated on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border in March 2019. 

The US scaled down its troop presence in Iraq in 2020, consolidating at a handful of key bases amid a previous spate of rocket and drone attacks by suspected Iran-backed militias. 

American military personnel there mainly serve in an advisory role to Iraqi commanders nearly a decade after the Iraqi military almost collapsed at the hands of the Islamic State group.

Iraq’s military still struggles with coordinating joint ground and air operations, as well as with effectively fielding artillery, the Pentagon’s inspector general has reported.

Biden administration officials say the Iraqi military’s future capabilities and needs are for leaders in Baghdad to determine.

“I think it’s fair to say that decades into the future US forces will not be present in Iraq in the current formation that we are today,” the Pentagon’s then-top Middle East policy official, Dana Stroul, said in August 2023.

What’s next: The US also maintains some 900 troops as part of the coalition in Syria, according to official numbers.

Their presence holds together an alliance of Kurdish-led Syrian forces credited with guarding more than 60,000 Islamic State prisoners in makeshift camps and prisons, with few resources.

The US troop presence relies heavily on logistics from US forces around Erbil, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

Biden’s National Security Council has begun preliminarily reviewing a potential exit strategy from Syria, Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman reported exclusively this week — though no decisions have been made yet, officials insist.

Know more: Read Al-Monitor’s reporting on the establishment of the US-Iraq Higher Military Commission last summer.


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