US sees smaller but continued US military presence in Iraq

Iraq’s fight against ISIS, showdown with Iran-backed militias among factors cited for keeping presence.
Wednesday 08/07/2020
Marine General Frank McKenzie, top US commander for the Middle East, watches flight operations onboard the USS Harry S. Truman in the North Arabian Sea. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - At the end of talks held Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Marine General Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command talked about keeping a smaller but continuing US presence in Iraq.

According to media reports, The US commander expressed the belief that the fight against ISIS and the showdown with Iran-backed militias are among the justifications for some level of enduring US presence in Iraq.

“I believe that going forward, they’re going to want us to be with them,” McKenzie told a small group of reporters, speaking by phone hours after he left Iraq. “I don’t sense there’s a mood right now for us to depart precipitously. And I’m pretty confident of that.”

Tensions spiked between the US and Iraq in January after a US drone strike near the Baghdad airport killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Iraqi lawmakers, spurred on by Shia political factions, passed a nonbinding resolution to oust all US-led coalition forces from the country.

In response to the Soleimani killing, Iran on January 8 launched a massive ballistic missile attack on al-Asad air base in Iraq, which resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops. Two months later, US fighter jets struck five sites in retaliation, targeting Iranian-backed Shia militia members believed responsible for the January rocket attack.

US President Donald Trump has vowed to bring troops home and halt what he calls America’s endless wars. But he has also warned Iran to expect a bold US response if Iranian-backed militias attack Americans in Iraq.

Mick Mulroy, a former senior US Department of Defence official for the Middle East, told The Washington Post a continued US troop presence would help in “the continuing development of the Iraqi military to defend itself against the malign activities of Iran.”

“Many of these militias look out for the interests of Iran over that of their own country,” added Mulroy.

The US invaded Iraq in 2003, but troops left in 2011. American forces returned to Iraq in 2014, after ISIS began taking over large swaths of the country,

US-Iraqi relations are seen to have improved since Kadhimi took over in May as prime minister. And while some groups, such as parliament’s Iran-backed Fatah bloc, continue to call for the withdrawal of US forces, the climate of relations has been less tense, allowing for an emerging dialogue to take place between the US and Iraq on the future relationship between the two countries.

McKenzie said the US recognises that Kadhimi is in a difficult position as he tries to deal with all factions within the government and maintain relations with both the US and Iran.

The US has criticised Iraq’s government in the past for being unable to rein in the Iran-backed militia groups it believes are orchestrating the attacks. And Kadhimi has pledged to protect American troops and installations from attacks.

“He’s negotiating a land mine now. I think we need to help him,” McKenzie said after meeting with Kadhimi during a visit to Baghdad. “And he’s just got to kind of find his way, which means we’re going to have less-than-perfect solutions, which is nothing new in Iraq. But. . . I’m a glass-half-full guy when I look at the prime minister and what he’s doing.”

McKenzie said he hopes the US-Iraq dialogue slated for this month in Washington will be face-to-face but knows the coronavirus pandemic could affect that. The talks are expected to run the gamut of their bilateral relations, with Washington prioritising future force levels in Iraq and the ongoing militia attacks, and Baghdad focusing more on its dire economic crisis.

“Certainly we need some foreign presence in Iraq,” McKenzie said. “I don’t know that it needs to be as big as it is now, because ultimately that’s going to be a political, not a military, decision. But I think the Iraqis know, welcome and value what we do for them now.”

There are between 5,000 and 6,000 US troops in Iraq.

McKenzie would not say how many US troops might stay. But he said conventional Iraqi forces now operate on their own. US and coalition forces continue to conduct training and counterterrorism operations, including with Iraqi commandos. Any final decisions, he said, would be coordinated with the Iraqi government.

Following talks held in Baghdad last month, Baghdad and Washington announced the downsizing of the US military presence in Iraq but without giving any figures or a timetable. A joint statement said “over the coming months the US would continue reducing forces from Iraq and discuss with the Government of Iraq the status of remaining forces as both countries turn their focus towards developing a bilateral security relationship based on strong mutual interests.”

“The United States reiterated that it does not seek nor request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq,” added the statement.

The joint statement did not give figures, with David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, telling reporters the delegations did not discuss a timeline for reducing troops.