US, Iraq Governments expected to soon begin talks on troops withdrawal

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The US and Iraq are expected to soon begin talks on the American military presence in the country following calls from the Iraq government for the US to withdraw its troops, as reported by CNN, citing sources. Last summer, the US and Iraq agreed to form a higher military commission, according to the Pentagon, as a vehicle for the talks.

The discussions between both countries will focus on the next phase of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, with the terror group now reduced to a shadow of its former self. According to officials, US military officials and diplomats will be involved in the discussions.

The talks about the future of the US military presence in Iraq have sparked a greater urgency as regional instability rises, according to CNN. Calls by the Iraq government for the US have come in response to the US launching airstrikes inside Iraq targeting Iran-backed militants who have been attacking US personnel there.

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Reportedly, the US has roughly 2,500 troops currently in Iraq who have been operating there in an advise and assist capacity since December 2021, when the US military announced the end of its combat role in the country. Moreover, some of the discussions will focus on whether and when it will be feasible to end the US military presence in Iraq, CNN reported.

The US officials said that they would prefer a schedule that would be based on conditions in Iraq, including the ongoing defeat of ISIS and the stability of the government and the Iraqi security forces. However, some elements within the Iraq government prefer a schedule based on a timeline, setting the date for the American withdrawal regardless of the stability of the security situation within the country.

Recently, on January 10, the office of Iraq Prime Minister Mohammed Shia-al-Sudani said that they would soon begin the process “to end the presence of the international coalition forces in Iraq permanently.” “The US and Iraq are close to agreement on starting the Higher Military Commission dialogue that was announced back in August,” a US official said.

“The HMC will be an opportunity to jointly evaluate the conditions required for the future of the D-ISIS fight in Iraq and shape the nature of the bilateral security relationship. We have been discussing this for months. The timing is not related to the recent attacks. The US will maintain its full right to self-defense during the talks, the official added.

Jonathan Lord, the director of the Middle East security programme at the Centre for New American Security, said that the US needs to transition its support for Iraq towards building “a lasting and sustainable military capacity in the (Iraq Security Forces), to avoid another 2014. That hasn’t happened.”

“If we leave now with no plan in place, we’re sending the patient back out on the street with no plan to stay healthy,” he added, comparing the initial anti-ISIS intervention to an emergency room hospital stay. “Chances are, if things go bad, they’ll end up right back there. And it’s the most expensive, least efficient way to help them.”

On Tuesday, following the latest round of US strikes in Iraq, a spokesperson for the prime minister said in a statement that the strikes are “undermining agreements and various sectors of joint security cooperation” as the two countries are working to “reshape the future relationship.”

Last year, the US and Iraq agreed to initiate talks on the future of the US military presence before the October 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel, which sparked wider regional tensions and encouraged the Iran-backed groups, particularly Kataib Hezbollah, in Iraq and across the Middle East.

Moreover, the Pentagon emphasised that the Iraq government has not formally asked the US military to withdraw, stressing that the troops are still there at the invitation of the Iraq government, as reported by CNN, adding that there is no deadline for a conclusion to the higher military commission discussions or their ultimate outcome.

Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the politics of the US military presence in Iraq have been “treacherous” for over a decade, but it’s not a binary choice of staying or leaving. Nor is this a process that needs to move quickly.

“This is a choice of where you want to be on a spectrum,” said Alterman. “Diplomats can manipulate both the timing and the direction of the talks and arrive at a wide variety of potential outcomes.” Alterman further said that, rumblings of a potential US change in its force posture in Iraq would be a victory for Iran. “Any sign that this is the beginning of the end would be widely celebrated in Iranian corridors,” he added.

Earlier on Wednesday, Iraq’s foreign minister hinted at the upcoming discussions, and highlighted that he met with the US Ambassador to Baghdad, Elena Romanowski, and “received from her an important message from the American government to the Iraqi government, which will be studied by the Prime Minister and the relevant concerned authorities. Next steps will be taken regarding it soon.”

The US also has a presence in Syria to fight ISIS, but administration officials said that a withdrawal from that country is not under consideration, according to CNN. “The Biden administration is not considering a withdrawal of forces from Syria,” a senior US official said.