US military expects ‘slow reduction’ of forces in Iraq

The planned withdrawal comes despite earlier fears of an ISIS resurgence.

Friday 24/07/2020
A file picture shows a US army soldier standing guard during the pull-out ceremony from the Qayyarah airbase. (dpa)
A file picture shows a US army soldier standing guard during the pull-out ceremony from the Qayyarah airbase. (dpa)

WASHINGTON - The US is preparing a further drawdown of troops in Iraq after strategic dialogue talks between the two countries last month.

The planned withdrawal comes despite earlier fears of an ISIS resurgence, which a US commander said had been largely kept at bay.

Major General Kenneth Ekman, deputy commander of coalition forces, told reporters that ISIS remains significantly weakened in Iraq. Having held large swathes of territory just years ago, its presence is now limited to “rural areas… and caves,” he said.

“What that has allowed us to do is to reduce our footprint here in Iraq,” said Ekman, adding that ISIS is now only able to mount “low-level insurgency” from its remote hideouts.

“I think over time, what you will see is a slow reduction of US forces,” he added, giving no details on the timeline or size of reduction.

The US military has over 5,000 troops stationed in Iraq. Their presence has been a major source of contention among divergent political factions in the country.

Earlier this year, Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution demanding US forces’ withdrawal from the country in retaliation to the US’s assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani and pro-Iranian militia chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad.

However, the US State Department initially refused to discuss withdrawal terms, calling America’s military presence “appropriate” in supporting the Iraqi military against terror threats.

Pro-Iranian factions, which compete for influence with the US and other powers for influence in Iraq, have clamoured for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

The Iraqi public, as well, is largely in favour of ending foreign presence in the country. Along with calls for the US’s withdrawal, there have been expressions of resentment of Iran, which is blamed for acting as a divisive occupying power that disregards Iraqi sovereignty.

Iraqi protester Hassanein Ali told the Associated Press during protests last November that the Iranian government shows “a lack of respect” for Iraq. “They act like they are the sons of this country and we are beneath them,” Ali, 35, said. “I feel like the Iranian Embassy controls the government and they are the ones repressing the demonstrators. I want Iran to leave.”

Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a Shia former intelligence chief who has good relations with both the US and Iran, has been credited with working to limit the influence of pro-Iranian militias while carefully navigating the complex power dynamics within his country’s institutions during his brief time in power.

In last month’s strategic dialogue session conducted between his administration and US officials, the two countries “affirmed the importance of the strategic relationship and their determination to take appropriate steps to enhance it in the interest of both countries and to achieve security, stability, and prosperity in the region,” according to a joint statement. A new session of the strategic dialogue is expected this month.

The US also recognised Iraq’s precarious economic situation and committed to working with Baghdad to help secure needed reforms and provide investment opportunities, as well as continuing to reduce its troop presence “in the coming months.”

As the US military begins the process of pulling out, commander Ekman said the objective would be to keep up the pressure on ISIS and prop up Iraqi security forces.

Several military bases have already been turned over to Iraqi forces and a large training camp near Baghdad is to be handed to them on Saturday, he added.