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US and Baghdad end talks on troop presence with optimism about Iraqi forces

Iraqi special forces advance to their next position in the Islah al-Zarai area in Mosul, Iraq, Thursday, May 11, 2017.

MAYA ALLERUZZO/AP

By LOUISA LOVELUCK | The Washington Post | Published: April 8, 2021

BAGHDAD — The United States and Iraq concluded talks Wednesday on America's troop presence here, issuing a joint statement that emphasized the growing capacity of the Iraqi military, six years after it crumbled in the face of the Islamic State's advance.

The statement followed a third round of talks between Washington and Baghdad, known as the Strategic Dialogue, and the first to take place under President Joe Biden.

"Based on the increasing capacity of the ISF [Iraq Security Forces], the parties confirmed that the mission of U.S. and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq, with the timing to be established in upcoming technical talks," the document said.

In a news conference in Baghdad on Wednesday evening, Iraq's national security adviser Qassem al-Araji said that the talks had led to "important progress" in opening the way for American combat troops to leave Iraq.

But in practice, the statement's newly debated description of the U.S. troop presence appeared to be more a restatement of current realities than a strategic shift. The coalition, led from Baghdad by U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Ryan Rideout, officially transitioned to a formal advisory capacity in July.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is under pressure from Iran-backed militias to usher the 2,500 U.S. American troops, which form the bulk of the coalition, to the exit but Iraqi security officials say that a limited presence still is needed to maintain pressure against what remains of the Islamic State group in Iraq.

Successive Iraqi governments have been under pressure to end the U.S. presence in Iraq since President Donald Trump's decision last year to order the assassination of leading Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad, sending tensions between Iran and the United States soaring across the region, and intensifying a proxy war on Iraqi soil that has mostly claimed the lives of Iraqi citizens.

Randa Slim, director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute, described Wednesday's joint statement as a product of careful messaging but little change.

"It's a statement that is aimed at one, strengthening the position of the prime minister, and two, messaging to the Iraqi people that this is a different relationship between the United States and Iraq, which is not solely security focused," she said.

The United States has had a military presence in Iraq for most of the 18 years since it led a 2003 invasion of the country. U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, but returned in 2014 as the dominant partner in a multination coalition assembled to defeat the Islamic State militants who had taken over a third of the country as government security forces collapsed.

The group is now a shadow of its former self, and Iraq's official security forces — including U.S.-trained units and a constellation of militia groups — fight the Islamist militants in remote terrain, or locate alleged sleeper cells amid urban populations.

But Iraqi and Western officials insist that the U.S.-led coalition and a separate contingent of U.S. Special Forces still add value, plugging gaps in intelligence capabilities and offering aerial support.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday that the joint statement says that the two sides have agreed to have "additional technical talks on the eventual redeployment" of U.S. troops.

But he said that "we all realize" that when the Iraqi government invited the United States in to respond to the Islamic State, it was not a permanent mission.

In a tweet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: "I'm optimistic about the road ahead after the review of the progress we've made in each area of our broad and strategic partnership."

Iran-backed militia groups have launched dozens of rocket attacks against U.S.-linked military and diplomatic missions in an attempt to pressure Washington into withdrawing its forces.

In a statement issued ahead of Wednesday's talks, a body representing the groups said it would "never accept the policy of an open timeline," a reference to its repeated calls for a clear timetable outlining a departure schedule for the coalition.

The joint U.S.-Iraqi statement outlined Washington's intention to support Iraq in areas ranging from education, energy and the environment. Coming a week after the State Department's annual human rights report on the country, a 59-page account that covered pervasive abuses by the Iraqi government, the statement Wednesday made no mention of discussion of human rights.

"Blinken said 'we are going to put human rights at the center of our foreign policy agenda,' but there was nothing in the communique," Slim said.