Iraq no longer needs U.S. combat troops on its soil and it is time for America to transition to a support role in the country, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said in an interview Sunday, previewing a message he’ll deliver Monday to President Biden when the two men meet at the White House.
Mr. al-Kadhimi and Mr. Biden are expected to detail the framework — and perhaps a specific timetable — for the eventual exit of roughly 2,500 U.S. troops from Iraq, where they’ve been stationed as part of a multinational coalition battling the Islamic State terrorist group.
“There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil,” the Iraqi leader told The Associated Press in an interview.
The American presence in Iraq has become something of a headache for both sides. And in light of the unfolding U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, the political moment may be right for Mr. Biden to bring an end to America’s combat mission in Iraq.
Mr. al-Kadhimi faces significant political pressure at home to facilitate the U.S. withdrawal, while the American forces themselves have become frequent targets of drone strikes and rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias operating in the country and in neighboring Syria.
Those attacks against American personnel have continued despite Mr. Biden ordering several airstrikes against the militias Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, which are part of the PMF, the umbrella organization for Shiite militias based in Iraq. Those two groups, which enjoy significant financial and logistical support from Tehran, are believed responsible for many of the attacks.
Relations between Washington and Baghdad also have been strained since a January 2020 airstrike at the Baghdad International Airport that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The former head of Kata’ib Hezbollah also was killed in the strike, which angered many Iraqi officials and nearly sparked a war between the U.S. and Iran.
Against that backdrop, Mr. al-Kadhimi said Iraqi forces are capable of leading the mission against Islamic State terrorist fighters and no longer need direct U.S. combat help.
“The war against [the Islamic State] and the readiness of our forces requires a special timetable, and this depends on the negotiations that we will conduct in Washington,” the Iraqi leader told the AP. “What we want from the U.S. presence in Iraq is to support our forces in training and developing their efficiency and capabilities, and in security cooperation.”
Should the U.S. transition to a mostly diplomatic presence and train-and-support mission in Iraq, it would resemble the Biden administration’s tack in Afghanistan. The U.S. is nearly finished withdrawing all of its 3,500 forces from Afghanistan. Just a few hundred Marines will remain in the country to protect the U.S. embassy and help guard the international airport in Kabul.
The U.S. has about 2,500 troops in Iraq. It had been 3,000 before former President Donald Trump cut the number during his final weeks in office.
The U.S. withdrew most of its personnel from Iraq in 2011 under former President Barack Obama. But a major American ground combat force returned in 2014 as the Islamic State rose to prominence and built its so-called “caliphate” across a huge swath of Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. also has about 900 troops stationed in Syria.
Pentagon and intelligence officials say the Islamic State has been “territorially defeated” and can no longer field a major ground army, though the organization still has many thousands of fighters and remains a threat across the region.