President Joe Biden has announced that US combat forces will leave Iraq by the end of 2021, 18 years after US-led forces invaded the country to overthrow president Saddam Hussein and eliminate weapons of mass destruction that have still not been found.
The announcement came after Biden held talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House.
The move is being seen as an attempt to help the Iraqi PM and signals an official change in the US role in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.
Political parties aligned to Iran have demanded the withdrawal of all forces from the US-led global coalition against IS, despite the continuing threat posed by the Sunni jihadist group.
Iran-backed Shia militias have meanwhile been accused by the US of carrying out hundreds of rocket, mortar and drone attacks on Iraqi military bases that host coalition forces in an apparent attempt to pressure them to leave.
For the US president, the announcement marks the end of another war that began under former president George W Bush. This year US troops will also finally leave Afghanistan after 20 years.
Speaking at the White House, Biden told his Iraqi counterpart “our counter-terrorism cooperation will continue even as we shift to this new phase.”
Kadhimi responded: “Today our relationship is stronger than ever. Our cooperation is for the economy, the environment, health, education, culture and more.” He has insisted no foreign combat troops are needed in Iraq.
“Our role in Iraq will be dealing with being available to continue to train, to assist, to help and deal with IS as it arrives,” Biden said. “But we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that when the US began the dialogue with Iraqi leaders, there were about 9,000 troops there.
“We are now at about 2,500 US forces in Iraq,” she said. “We are there, of course, at Iraq’s invitation to improve the capacity of Iraqi Security Forces and help them in the fight against IS.”
It’s unclear how many members of the US military will remain in Iraq and whether some military members currently in combat roles will shift to the new strategic roles.
“The numbers will be driven by what is needed for the mission over time,” Psaki said. “It is more about moving to a more advising and training capacity from what we have had over the last several years – that is what the Iraqi leadership have conveyed they want to see on the ground.”
The Hill points out that the distinction between “combat” troops and “noncombat” troops is muddy, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appeared to acknowledge over the weekend.
“All of our troops are capable of doing multiple things. And certainly, we task our combat troops with training, advising and assisting,” Austin told reporters travelling with him in Alaska on Saturday when asked whether there are any US combat troops in Iraq.
“And so I think trying to make that distinction is very difficult,” he said.