World U.S., Iraqi officials to announce U.S. military shift to advisory role in Iraq by year’s end

13:00  29 november  2021
13:00  29 november  2021 Source:   politico.com

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U.S. and Iraqi officials are finalizing a shift in the U.S. military mission in Iraq to a purely advisory role by the end of the year, marking the official end of the U.S. combat mission in the country, according to a U.S. official and two people familiar with the issue.

a large air plane on a runway: An American soldier boards a C-130 cargo plane bound for Iraq on January 10, 2016 at a base in an undisclosed location in the Persian Gulf Region. © John Moore/Getty Images An American soldier boards a C-130 cargo plane bound for Iraq on January 10, 2016 at a base in an undisclosed location in the Persian Gulf Region.

Officials plan to announce this shift on Monday after Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi meets with President Joe Biden at the White House, according to one of the people familiar with the discussions.

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Under the plan, which the people stressed will not constitute a withdrawal of American forces from the country, a number of U.S. service members will remain in Iraq indefinitely. These troops will provide logistics and advisory support, as well as air power, intelligence and surveillance capability in the fight against the Islamic State, which this week claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Baghdad that left dozens dead.

The announcement will mark the culmination of a number of strategic dialogues between Iraq and U.S. officials over the American military presence in Iraq over the last few years, the person said. While the overall numbers likely won’t change much -- there are roughly 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq today -- the remaining combat forces will likely redeploy, replaced with personnel focused on the advisory mission, between now and the end of the year.

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The change, which is being discussed as U.S. and Iraqi officials met Thursday at the Pentagon, will mark yet another shift for the U.S. military presence in Iraq, where the United States has deployed troops for most of the last 18 years.

Kadhimi previewed the announcement in a recent interview, saying that Iraq no longer has a need for U.S. combat troops.

“Iraqis are now ready to stand up on their feet and protect themselves. We are no longer in need of U.S. combat troops,” Kadhimi told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. “At the same time, we will continue to need intelligence support, training, capacity building and advice.”

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement to POLITICO that the meetings at the ministerial level "will reflect the breadth of this partnership and the importance with which the Biden administration views Iraq as a fulcrum for stability in the Middle East. We anticipate a number of deliverables to be announced in these areas at the close of the visit.”

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The Biden administration’s approach to the conflict in Iraq stands in sharp contrast with the situation in Afghanistan, as America winds down its longest war. In Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi officials are seeking a long-term military partnership; in Afghanistan, all U.S. troops are expected to leave by Aug. 31, aside from roughly 600 who will remain to help secure the U.S. embassy and the Kabul airport.

But officials say the situation in Iraq is different. The Pentagon has trained hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in recent years who have led the fight against the Islamic State, with the U.S. military providing air support and intelligence when needed. Iraqi special forces are some of the most-capable and battle-tested in the region, officials say, and played a leading role in defeating the ISIS caliphate in 2019. In Afghanistan, by contrast, the Taliban have made steady gains for years, and the Trump administration’s 2020 peace deal with the group made the pullout all but inevitable, officials say.

Video: In Iraq, an old U.S. foe is stronger than ever (Reuters)

Kadhimi is in the tricky position of trying to balance pressure from Iranian-linked political factions within his government that want American forces out entirely, and Iraq’s ongoing need for critical U.S. military support to continue fighting terrorists. Adding another layer of complexity to Kadhimi’s dilemma, Iranian-backed militia groups are relentlessly targeting U.S. and Iraqi troops in the country with drone and rocket attacks.

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While the change on the ground would be subtle, official recognition of the shift in mission could be portrayed as a political win for Kadhimi ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

The U.S. military has been gradually transitioning to an advisory role in Iraq since summer 2020, when American and Iraqi officials agreed in a series of communiques to reduce U.S. combat forces in the country.

In fact, in an April 7 joint statement, officials proclaimed that due to the increasing capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces, “the mission of U.S. and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq, with the timing to be established in upcoming technical talks.”

The announcement next week will officially put an end date on the transition. But the sources stressed that a withdrawal of U.S. troops in the near future is not being seriously discussed.

The U.S. military has maintained a steady presence in Iraq since 2014 under Operation Inherent Resolve, which saw American troops return to the country due to the rise of the Islamic State. But Iraq became the proxy battleground for a tit-for-tat conflict between Washington and Tehran in 2019 following then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions the previous year.

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The conflict crescendoed in America’s Jan. 3 assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, which led the Iraqi Council of Representatives two days later to approve a nonbinding resolution calling for the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. That fall, the Pentagon formally announced a plan to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq by more than a third, from 5,200 to 3,000; by January 2021, the Trump administration had reduced that number to 2,500.

Still, the attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq continue, and have increased in recent weeks despite retaliatory U.S. airstrikes in February and June. In just one week in early July, U.S. troops and diplomats in Iraq and Syria were targeted in six rocket and drone attacks.

U.S. officials say the increased threat, including a spate of drone attacks in June, reflect Iran’s push for America to withdraw troops from Iraq.

On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers suggested it was a bad idea to end the combat mission while ISIS and Iran-backed proxies continue to threaten Iraq’s sovereignty.

“As we watch Afghanistan descend into chaos and ISIS continue to lash out in Iraq and Syria, now is not the time for either the U.S. or Iraq to pretend that our shared mission is over,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said she was “really concerned about pulling all of our troops out without having a good solid withdrawal plan and how we’ll respond to a surge in terrorism.

Republicans have largely backed Biden’s retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militants in Iraq and Syria, but have urged him to develop a strategy to push the terror groups out of those countries for good.

The House recently repealed outdated war authorizations for Iraq, and the Senate is expected to follow suit later this year. Some Republicans have argued that scrapping those authorizations would unnecessarily hinder Biden’s ability to go after these terror groups in Iraq, though the measures were initially adopted to authorize military action for the first Gulf War and the effort to topple Saddam Hussein’s government.

Nahal Toosi and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

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This is interesting!