US President Donald Trump said Thursday that American troops would leave Iraq but gave no timetable for the withdrawal, as he met the country’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi for the first time in Washington.
The meeting comes with attacks on American targets by pro-Iranian fighters on the rise and the Iraqi government facing calls to expel the roughly 5,000 US troops deployed in the country as part of anti-jihadist efforts.
“So at some point, we obviously will be gone,” Trump said alongside Kadhemi at the White House, adding: “We’ve brought it down to a very, very low level.”
“But we have been taking our troops out of Iraq fairly rapidly, and we look forward to the day when we don’t have to be there. And hopefully Iraq can live their own lives and they can defend themselves,” the US president said.
Trump said that military considerations were on the agenda for his meeting with Kadhemi, who took office in May.
Kadhemi said at the White House that he was “grateful” for US support in the war against the Islamic State jihadist group, which “has built our partnership for the best interests for our nation.”
The US military withdrew from Iraq in late 2011, leaving a small mission attached to the US embassy.
But additional American forces were deployed to the country a few years later to support Iraqi forces in their war against IS, which carried out a devastating offensive in the summer of 2014.
Opposition to the US presence remains high among pro-Iranian politicians and their supporters, especially following the US assassination of top Iranian commander General Qassem Soleimani at the beginning of this year in a strike that also killed Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Kadhemi told journalists in Washington that while the war against IS has ended, there is still a threat from sleeper cells.
On the issue of US troops, Kadhemi said: “We definitely do not need combat troops in Iraq, but we do need training and capacity building and security cooperation.”
A senior US administration official, who spoke Wednesday on the condition of anonymity, said that little about the American drawdown is certain at this point.
Increase in Attacks
“There are no hard fast timelines, and there are no hard fast numbers but that certainly would be part of the discussion, as we evaluate what Iraq security requirements are, and what the United States believes it can do.”
The official also described “armed groups” as “a persistent problem that challenges Iraqi security, has threatened US forces’ interests in the region, and certainly it’s a challenge to Iraq sovereignty.”
Kadhemi said on Thursday that US officials “expressed some concerns about certain groups that operate in Iraq,” later adding: “Any weapons outside the framework of the state will not be permitted.”
The Iraqi premier faces challenges from factions of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a coalition of Iraqi Shiite paramilitary groups with close ties to Iran whose political representatives have called for American troops to go.
The Hashed denies any connection to a recent spate of anti-US attacks, but videos and claims on social media hint at its involvement, through groups operating under other names.
Kadhemi has angered armed groups by seizing border posts where they ran lucrative smuggling networks and imposed taxes on traders.
Attacks have risen in recent weeks, with the Iraqi army reporting another rocket attack on Tuesday evening targeting Baghdad airport, where US troops are based. The projectile did not cause damage or casualties, the army said.
From October to the end of July, Iraqi armed factions carried out 39 rocket attacks against American interests in the country.
But after the White House earlier this month confirmed that Trump would meet Kadhemi, the pace intensified.
Between August 4 and 18, 14 bomb and rocket attacks targeted Iraqi logistics convoys for the US military, bases housing US soldiers, and the US embassy.
While the impact has been limited, the attacks have served as a show of strength.