Defense Secretary Doubles Down On Anti-ISIS Mission During Unannounced Visit To Iraq

REUTERS/Idrees Ali

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pledged to continue the U.S. train-and-assist mission in Iraq until the Islamic State (ISIS) is eliminated in a surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday, according to media reports.

Following meetings with top Iraqi officials that came just days before the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Austin said that American troops would continue to serve in the country at the local government’s request, Reuters reported. The U.S. has 2,500 troops in Iraq and an additional 900 in Syria whose mission is to advise local forces in countering ISIS, which still retains a presence despite losing mass amounts of territory to counterterrorism coalition forces in 2017.

“We’ll continue working to accomplish this mission together. Through the global coalition to defeat Daesh, we liberated more than 50,000 square kilometers from Daesh and freed more than 4.5 million Iraqis from their cruel grip,” Austin said, according to The Associated Press. Daesh is the Arabic name for the Islamic State. (RELATED: US Boosting Weapons Aid To Somalia For War Against Deadly Terrorist Organization)

U.S. troops remain in Iraq in a non-combat capacity and are prepared to continue advising and supporting the “Iraqi-led fight against terrorism,” Austin added, according to the AP.

ISIS militants have killed or wounded dozens of Iraqi troops in recent months, according to the AP.

“U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq,” Austin said after a conversation with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani, according to Reuters. “The United States will continue to strengthen and broaden our partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability, and sovereignty.”

For his part, Sudani reiterated his position that Iraq should pursue a foreign policy that promotes balance and stability in the region and is based on respect for nations’ sovereignty, according to Reuters.

In addition to ISIS, several Iran-backed militia groups operate in or near Iraq, according to Reuters. Some of those groups have fired rockets at U.S. bases and the embassy in Baghdad.

“I think that Iraqi leaders share our interest in Iraq not becoming a playground for conflict between the United States and Iran,” a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

Austin is the most senior Biden administration official to visit Iraq, according to Reuters. He formerly served as the last commanding general of United States Forces – Iraq from 2010 to 2011 as the combat mission tapered down before re-surging again under the coalition to defeat ISIS.

The 2003 invasion succeeded in ousting dictator Saddam Hussein, but ravaged cities, led to thousands of civilian casualties and primed the population for a resurgence of jihadist ideologies, according to Reuters. ISIS quickly found a foothold in Iraq and captured swaths of territory in 2014.

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