U.S. combat operations will conclude in Iraq before the end of 2021.
President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi reached a historic agreement at the White House on July 26. Both sides declared U.S. military involvement in Iraq will no longer include combat operations beyond Dec. 31.
“Our role in Iraq will be … just to be available, to continue to train, assist, help, and deal with ISIS [Islamic State] as it arrives,” the president said in a statement. “We are not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission.”
Both parties later issued a joint statement through the Department of State to stress this position.
“Delegations decided–following recent technical talks–that the security relationship will fully transition to a training, advising, assisting, and intelligence-sharing role,” they said. “There will be no U.S. forces with a combat role in Iraq by Dec. 31, 2021.”
“The United States intends to continue its support for the Israeli security forces, including the Peshmerga, to build their capacity to deal with future threats,” they added.
The White House revealed the decision to withdraw combat operations represents a significant shift in political direction.
“[This] is about a change of mission, and the numbers will be driven by what is needed for the mission over time,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “It is more about moving to a more advising and training capacity, from what we have had over the last several years.”
However, BL understands the announcement represents a change in language rather than a change in goal. The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq ended combat operations in 2020, and shifted to an advisory role alongside Iraqi commanders in Baghdad.
Kadhimi, who Washington considers to be Iraq’s most capable leader in decades, is campaigning ahead of national elections in October. He faces significant pressure from pro-Iran elements to remove U.S. soldiers from the country. Supporters are likely to welcome the latest military withdrawal.
Kadhimi previously revealed he would urge Biden to send U.S. military trainers and intelligence support to Iraq instead of combat soldiers. Most of the 2,500 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, as part of the multinational coalition against Islamic State, are advisors and members of brigade security teams.
Iraqi pro-Iran organisations have already responded to the announcement. Jaafer al-Husseini, a spokesman for the Kataib Hezbollah Iran-backed militia group, rejected any U.S.-Iraqi deal that keeps American soldiers in Iraq regardless of their role, according to the BBC.
The White House meeting was the fourth and final round of strategic talks. The first two took place during the previous Trump administration. Biden confirmed the present administration is still focused on Iraq’s upcoming elections.
“We support strengthening Iraq’s democracy, and we are anxious to make sure the election goes forward in October,” he said in the statement.
The Democrat did not say exactly how many U.S. soldiers will stay in Iraq after the end of the year.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby was similarly unable to confirm how many of the 2,500 personnel are “combat forces.” However, he did reveal their role is “largely advising and assistance.”
Combat troops perform a variety of tasks, including combat operations, training, advising, and assisting according to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The U.S.-led multinational operation in Iraq and Syria turned over eight facilities to the Iraqi military in Baghdad, Erbil, and Anbar provinces during 2020. The entire effort, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, was recently assigned a new leader.
“U.S. forces have not been directly involved in combat operations in Iraq for some time,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Mick Mulroy said according to Al-Monitor. “They are there in an advisory role.”
Mulroy believes it is essential to withdraw U.S. combat operations without compromising security in Iraq.
“[It is important] that we keep enough of our forces to maintain that advisory role, to adequately protect our forces from the attacks by Iranian-backed militias and to have the capability to surge combat support assets, such as air and intelligence, should Islamic State make a resurgence,” he said according to the publication.
The U.S. footprint in Syria is not expected to change according to a senior Biden administration official. Nine hundred U.S. troops in Syria is consistent with the existing U.S. force present in northern Iraq.
The official stressed future U.S. troop commitments in Iraq are just small parts of an “enormous agenda” in Washington between the two parties.
The Biden administration pledged $5.2 million to a United Nations mission to independently observe Iraq’s October elections. It also promised $155 million in humanitarian aid for the country’s displaced people.
In addition, the U.S. plans to provide 500,000 Chinese Communist Party Virus vaccinations from Pfizer to Iraq. The president promised they will be there “quickly.”
The Biden administration is separately working with Jordan’s government to finish a project that began during the Trump’s administration. The project involves connecting power grids between Jordan and Iraq.
“This is a project that USAID is helping to fund on the Jordanian side and General Electric is helping to fund on the Iraqi side,” a representative said according to Al-Monitor. “It will help bring power to about a million Iraqis in southern Iraq and also some revenues to Jordan, so it is a really major win-win initiative.”