Middle East Desk
Baghdad: Iraq’s prime minister says his country no longer requires American combat troops to fight the Islamic State (IS) group, but a formal time frame for their redeployment will depend on the outcome of talks with US officials this week.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi said Iraq will still ask for US training and military intelligence gathering. His comments came in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press ahead of a planned trip to Washington, where he’s slated to meet with President Joe Biden on Monday for a fourth round of strategic talks.
“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.
“The war against IS and the readiness of our forces require a special timetable, and this depends on the negotiations that we will conduct in Washington,” he said. 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. In Monday’s meeting at the White House, the two leaders are expected to specify a timeline, possibly by the end of this year. The US troop presence has stood at about 2,500 since late last year when former President Donald Trump ordered a reduction from 3,000.
The US mission of training and advising Iraqi forces has its most recent origins in former President Barack Obama’s decision in 2014 to send troops back to Iraq. The move was made in response to the IS group’s takeover of large portions of western and northern Iraq and a collapse of Iraqi security forces that appeared to threaten Baghdad. Obama had fully withdrawn US forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after the US invasion.
“What we want from the US presence in Iraq is to support our forces in training and developing their efficiency and capabilities, and in security cooperation,” al-Kadhimi said.
The Washington trip comes as the premier’s administration has faced one setback after another, seriously undermining public confidence. Ongoing missile attacks by militia groups have underscored the limits of the state to prevent them and a series of devastating hospital fires amid soaring coronavirus cases have left dozens dead.
Meanwhile, early federal elections, in line with a promise al-Kadhimi made when he assumed office, are less than three months away.
Chief on the agenda in Washington, however, is the future of American-led coalition forces in Iraq.
Iraq declared victory over IS in late 2017 after a ruinous and bloody war. The continued presence of American troops has become a polarising issue among Iraq’s political class since the US-directed drone strike that killed powerful Iranian general Qassim Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Iraqi soil last year.
To quell the threat of widespread instability following the targeted killings, the US and Iraq have held at least three rounds of strategic talks centring on Iraq’s military needs in the ongoing fight against IS and to formalise a timeline for withdrawal. Four years since their territorial defeat, IS militants are still able to launch attacks in the capital and roam the country’s rugged northern region. Last week, a suicide bomber killed 30 people in a busy Baghdad marketplace.