Pentagon chief pledges to keep U.S. troops in unannounced Iraq visit

Baghdad: Baghdad/Erbil: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who made a surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday nearly 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, said Washington was committed to maintaining its presence in the country. country’s military presence.

The 2003 invasion killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and caused instability that eventually paved the way for the rise of Daesh militants after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.

Austin was the most senior official to visit Iraq in President Joe Biden’s administration and was the last commander of U.S. forces in Iraq after the invasion.

“U.S. forces are prepared to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government,” Austin told reporters after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Sultani.

“The United States will continue to strengthen and expand our partnership in support of Iraq’s security, stability and sovereignty,” he said.

Sultani later said in a statement that his government’s approach was to maintain balanced relations with regional and international governments based on shared interests and respect for sovereignty, adding that “the stability of Iraq is key to the security and stability of the region.”

2,500 soldiers

The US currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq – and another 900 in Syria – to help advise and assist local forces in the fight against Islamic State, which captured large swaths of both countries in 2014.

Daesh is far from the powerful force it once was, but the militant group has survived in northern Iraq and parts of northeastern Syria.

Former officials and experts said Austin’s trip was also to support Sudan’s push back against Iranian influence in the country.

In Iraq, Iran-backed militias have occasionally targeted U.S. troops and their embassy in Baghdad with rockets. In 2020, the U.S. and Iran moved closer to full-scale conflict after U.S. forces killed General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, in a drone strike.

oil revenue share

“I think Iraqi leaders share our concern that Iraq will not become a playground for conflict between the United States and Iran,” said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Austin met with Sudanese and Iraqi Kurdistan regional president Nechirvan Barzani at a time when there has been a long-running dispute between the national government and Erbil over budget transfers and oil revenue sharing, as well as a lingering feud between the Kurds’ two main parties. Semi-Kurdistan autonomous region.

“Erbil and Baghdad must work together for the benefit of all Iraqis, and Kurdish leaders must set aside their differences and work together to build a secure and prosperous Iraqi Kurdish region,” Austin said after meeting with Barzani.

Austin also condemned Iran’s “repeated cross-border attacks” on Iraq.

Last year, Tehran displaced hundreds of Iranian Kurds and killed some when it fired missiles at bases of Kurdish groups in northern Iraq that Iran accused of being involved in protests against its restrictions on women.

The administration of former President George W. Bush justified the decision to invade Iraq by citing what it believed the government of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. U.S. and allied forces later discovered that such stocks did not exist.

Between 185,000 and 208,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the war, according to the Cost of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.

In 2011, Austin, the former commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said the U.S. had achieved its military goals in Iraq.

But under former President Barack Obama, the United States sent thousands of troops back to Iraq and Syria three years later to step up the fight against Islamic State.

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