US, Iraq to begin talks over potential end to coalition presence

10:19 27.01.2024 •

The Biden administration is expected to begin dialogue in the coming days with the Iraqi government about the future presence of the 2,500 US troops who remain in the country.

A US military official told Al-Monitor on Wednesday that Washington and Baghdad are “close to a consensus on starting” the discussions, which were agreed to in August 2023 in order to plan ways to transform the US-led international troop presence in Iraq into a normal defense and security relationship.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated Thursday that the dialogue “reflects the deep US commitment to regional stability and Iraqi sovereignty.”

Why now: The dialogue under the so-called Higher Military Commission was delayed due to the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel and the resulting war in the Gaza Strip, US officials said.

It is now expected to be held after Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has said he would seek from Washington a timeline for an end to the coalition’s presence in Iraq.

A senior US defense official on Thursday said the working group-level talks would cover “how the coalition’s military mission will evolve on a timeline” based on assessments about the threat from ISIS, Iraqi military capabilities and “operational and environmental requirements” to prevent the jihadist group’s return.

Why it matters: The Iraqi prime minister is thought to be facing increased domestic pressure to expel US troops from the country after the US military launched a series of airstrikes targeting Iran-backed militia personnel and facilities in Iraq in recent weeks.

The strikes, authorized by the Pentagon and ordered by top the US commander in the Middle East, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, came as part of a bid to halt an ongoing stream of rocket, missile and drone attacks on bases used by US forces.

The attacks began Oct. 17 after Israel was accused of bombing a hospital in the Gaza Strip. There have been more than 150 such attacks on US positions in Iraq and Syria thus far, leaving 70 US personnel with minor injuries and one seriously wounded. On Sunday, Iraq's Ain al-Asad air base was targeted by at least a dozen projectiles in the largest volley yet involving ballistic missiles.

US officials say there has been no decision to withdraw US troops from Iraq.

What’s next: The United States also maintains some 900 troops as part of the coalition in Syria, according to official numbers.

Their presence holds together an alliance of Kurdish-led Syrian forces credited with guarding more than 50,000 Islamic State-linked detainees in makeshift camps and prisons, with few resources.

The US troop presence relies heavily on logistics from US forces around Erbil, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

Biden’s National Security Council has begun preliminarily reviewing a potential exit strategy from Syria, Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman reported exclusively this week — though no decisions have yet been made, officials insist.

Asked by Al-Monitor, senior US officials speaking to reporters on Thursday wouldn't say whether they envisoned a US military presence in Syria after a potential future withdrawal from Iraq. Pentagon officials have previously said no such formal request has been made by Baghdad.

But one senior US military official said that one of the working groups will be responsible for discussing "transition formations" – or potential changes to the US footprint – with the Iraqi government.


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