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Biden, Iraqi prime minister to announce end of US combat mission in Iraq

The Hill
The Hill
 2021-07-26
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President Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will announce Monday that the U.S. military’s combat mission in Iraq will formally conclude by the end of the year.

The announcement will come in a joint communique issued after the two leaders meet in the White House on Monday afternoon, a senior administration official told reporters in a background call about the meeting.

“We’re talking about shifting to a new phase in the campaign in which we very much complete the combat mission against ISIS and shift to an advisory and training mission by the end of the year,” the official said.

“As this evolution continues, and as we formally end the combat mission and make clear that there are no American forces with a combat role in the country, Iraq has requested, and we very much agree, that they need continued training, support with logistics, intelligence, advisory capacity building — all of which will continue,” the official added.

But while the announcement will mark a symbolic end to the combat mission, U.S. military operations in Iraq are expected to remain largely unchanged, as U.S. troops there have been in a mostly training and advisory role for years. Additionally, the distinction between “combat” and “noncombat” troops is not clear.

“All of our troops are capable of doing multiple things. And certainly, we task our combat troops, our troops that are capable of conducting combat operations, with training, advising and assisting,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters traveling with him in Alaska on Saturday when asked whether there are any U.S. combat troops in Iraq. “And so I think trying to make that distinction is very difficult. But I would say that the key is ... what we're tasked to do at any one point in time.”

Monday’s announcement comes as both U.S. officials and al-Kadhimi have been struggling to balance the continued need to keep ISIS in check with repeated attacks on U.S. forces by Iran-backed militias and political pressure on the prime minister to boot U.S. troops.

Last year, Iraq’s parliament voted to kick U.S. troops out after the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani while he was at the Baghdad airport.

The Iraqi government also condemned the airstrikes Biden ordered in June against the Iran-backed militias, with al-Kadhimi’s office saying in a statement the strikes were a “blatant and unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty and Iraqi national security.”

In an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday, al-Kadhimi held that “there is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil.”

In April, after the previous round of U.S.-Iraq strategic talks, a joint statement said “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.” Monday’s statement builds on that by adding the end-of-year timeline.

While largely symbolic, Monday’s announcement is also the latest effort by Biden to put the post-9/11 era behind the United States as it shifts to focusing on competition with China. U.S. troops are on the verge of completing a withdrawal from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years after Biden ordered them out by Aug. 31.

The current U.S. military operation in Iraq has its roots in 2014, when then-President Obama sent troops back into the country to combat ISIS after withdrawing them in 2011.

ISIS lost all of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria in 2019, but U.S. forces remain in the region as the terrorist group continues to pose a threat and wage a deadly insurgency.

Indeed, even as administration officials previewed the end of the combat mission in Iraq, they acknowledged the threat ISIS still poses.

Last week’s ISIS-claimed bombing in Baghdad that killed at least 35 people “just reinforces the need that we both understand and recognize that Iraq continues to need support in this kind of advisory, training, capacity-building sense,” the official said on the call with reporters.

Still, the official said, Iraqi forces are “battle-tested” and “have proven very capable in protecting their country,” so U.S. forces “can very much recede deep into the background.”

About 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, and 900 are in Syria. Monday’s announcement will not affect the mission or footprint in Syria, the official said.

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