US Holding Talks With Iraqi Gov’t To Reevaluate Anti-ISIS Partnership That Could Include Troop Drawdown

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Officials dodged questions on Thursday as to whether a previously announced U.S.-Iraq commission that will begin holding meetings in the coming days to discuss future security cooperation between the two countries will touch on a U.S. military exit from Iraq.

Although the Iraqi government has signaled its desire to see U.S. forces leave, the purpose of the U.S-Iraq Higher Military Commission (HMC) is not to negotiate a withdrawal of the 2,500 U.S. troops that are currently engaged in counterterror efforts in Iraq, a senior defense official said in a briefing Thursday. Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the commission’s formal start, referred to any outcomes or plans for the talks, which were first announced in August, as “speculative.” However, they did not explicitly deny that a U.S. withdrawal might be discussed.

“Let me be clear, the HMC meeting is not a negotiation about the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq,” the defense official said Thursday. (RELATED: US Airstrike Kills Militia Leader Blamed For Attacks On US Troops In Iraq)

“Our Iraqi partners have assured us of their commitment toward working together to shape this future U.S. military presence and ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS,” the official said.

The Pentagon announced the HMC in August. Working groups consisting of military and defense officials will work with Iraqi delegations to determine how the anti-ISIS coalition might evolve over time, taking into account the fact that ISIS has been significantly degraded, the defense official said.

“Seven years after our collective territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq, we see a need to a need to transition to a normal bilateral security cooperation relationship,” the official said.

U.S. troops are based in Iraq at the recognized government’s invitation to assist in the ongoing effort to defeat the Islamic State, according to the Pentagon. Although the Biden Administration has not spoken about a full U.S. troop withdrawal, signs are emerging among Iraqi leadership that America’s presence is no longer welcome.

Iraq plans to “formulate a specific and clear timetable that specifies the duration of the presence of international coalition advisors in Iraq” and to “initiate the gradual and deliberate reduction of its advisors on Iraqi soil,” the foreign ministry said in a statement after Thursday’s announcement of the start of the HMC, according to The Associated Press.

Officials did not confirm that the Biden Administration hopes to maintain a long-term security presence in Iraq. They also would not say whether they would engage if members of Iraq’s delegation broached the subject of a U.S. military exit.

“I really don’t think we can say more about what that outcome will be, because those discussions are just getting started. Obviously, it does address an eventual transition for Operation Inherent Resolve,” the senior defense official said, referring to the U.S.-led military effort to ensure ISIS’ defeat. “But further than that, I think, would just simply be speculative.”

Iranian-backed militias have attacked U.S. troops based in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve more than 150 times since October, adding new urgency to the talks. The attacks have caused one very serious injury and dozens of mostly concussive-like injuries, a senior military official said Thursday.

ISIS no longer has the ability to hold territory or execute major battles, and likely has less than 1,000 fighters still in Iraq and Syria combined, the military official said.

The U.S. has maintained a nonstop troop presence in Iraq since 2003, according to the AP. While the combat mission ended in 2011, U.S. forces have since 2014 served to advise and train local forces in the fight against ISIS.

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