President Joe Biden, who will host Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi Monday, is expected to launch a “new phase” of the US military presence in Iraq, formally ending combat operations but stopping short of announcing a full withdrawal.
The US troop presence in Iraq will be at the heart of the meeting between the president and Kadhemi, a weakened leader who is under intense pressure from pro-Tehran armed factions who demand the withdrawal of 2,500 US troops still deployed in Iraq.
But the question of whether Baghdad has what it takes to stand up to residual Islamic State jihadist cells in the country remains.
Just last week, IS — also known as ISIS — claimed a suicide bombing at a Baghdad market that killed 30 people, despite Iraqi officials declaring the Sunni extremists defeated over three years ago.
“We’re talking about shifting to a new phase in the campaign in which we very much complete the combat mission against ISIS and shift to an advisory and training mission by the end of the year,” a senior Biden administration official said Monday.
The official predicted “additional adjustments” could be made by the end of 2021. “Iraq has requested, and we very much agree, that they need continued training, support with logistics, intelligence, advisory capacity building — all of which will continue,” the official said.
Technically, there are already no actual combat troops on the ground in Iraq, where the US military has officially only deployed advisors or trainers.
But the official, who did not give specific numbers, said the change was “far more than semantics.”
The US president and the Iraqi leader are due to meet at 2:00 pm Washington time (1800 GMT), and have not scheduled a joint press conference, but a statement is to be issued.
Tug of War
Some 2,500 US troops still remain in Iraq as part of an anti-IS coalition — a number on top of which there are likely additional special forces, whose numbers are not publicly known.
With three months to go before legislative elections, Kadhemi — whose country has been ravaged by a trifecta of violence, poverty, and corruption — is hoping to regain a bit of ground with powerful pro-Iran factions, which are overtly hostile to the US presence.
US forces in Iraq have been subject to repeat attacks by pro-Iran militias, who in turn have suffered military reprisals launched by Washington.
Iraq is an important strategic link for the United States, which leads the international coalition fighting the IS group in neighboring Syria.
Abandoning Iraq to Iranian influence is out of the question for the United States, with Washington and Tehran mired in renewed tensions — even if Biden has signaled his readiness to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
In the context of this tug-of-war “it doesn’t seem likely that the number of US troops in Iraq will be reduced dramatically,” said Hamdi Malik of the Washington Institute think tank.
Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq specialist at the University of Chicago’s Pearson Institute, believes the Biden-Kadhemi meeting may cosmetically be “shaped” to help the Iraqi premier alleviate domestic pressures, “but the reality on the ground will reflect the status quo and an enduring US presence.”
What regional specialists fear most, however, is a continuation or even intensification of the attacks perpetrated by the pro-Iran factions.
Again on Friday, a drone attack was carried out on a military base in Iraqi Kurdistan that hosts American troops, but did not cause any casualties.
The Iraqi Resistance Coordination Committee, a group of militia factions, on Friday threatened to continue the attacks unless the United States withdraws all its forces and ends the “occupation.”