U.S. President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi sealed an agreement on Monday formally ending the U.S. combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, but American forces will still operate there in an advisory role.
The agreement comes at a politically delicate time for the Iraqi government and could be a boost for Baghdad. Mr. Kadhimi has faced increasing pressure from Iran-aligned parties and paramilitary groups who oppose the U.S. military role in the country.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Kadhimi met in the Oval Office for their first face-to-face talks as part of a strategic dialogue between the United States and Iraq.
“Our role in Iraq will be ... to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission,” Mr. Biden told reporters. There are currently 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq focusing on countering the remnants of Islamic State. The U.S. role in Iraq will shift entirely to training and advising the Iraqi military to defend itself.
For Mr. Biden, the deal to end the combat mission in Iraq follows decisions to carry out an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan and wrap up the U.S. military mission there by the end of August.
Together with his agreement on Iraq, the Democratic President is moving to formally complete U.S. combat missions in the two wars that then-President George W. Bush began under his watch nearly two decades ago. A U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 based on charges that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was ousted from power, but such weapons were never found.
In recent years, the U.S. mission was focused on helping defeat the IS militants in Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Kadhimi, who is seen as friendly to the U.S., has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militias. But his government condemned U.S. air strikes against Iran-aligned fighters along its border with Syria in late June, calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. In remarks to a small group of reporters after the talks, Mr. Kadhimi stressed that his government was responsible for responding to such attacks. He acknowledged that he had reached out to Tehran to address them. “We speak to Iranians and others in an attempt to put a limit to these attacks, which are undermining Iraq and its role,” he said.
Several powerful pro-Iran groups in Iraq welcomed an announcement by the U.S.
Conquest Alliance, the political wing of Iraq’s Hashed-al-Shaabi paramilitary network, which is dominated by pro-Iran groups, said it considered Mr. Biden’s announcement “to be a positive step towards the full sovereignty of Iraq”. “We hope that it will materialise on the ground.”
(With AFP inputs)