The United States and Iraq will begin talks soon to wind down the mission of a U.S.-led military coalition formed to fight ISIS in Iraq, both governments said Thursday. The Pentagon said the size of the U.S. military footprint in the country will be part of the discussions.
The announcement comes as U.S. forces in Iraq have been increasingly targeted by Iran-backed militias, though the U.S. says the talks were first discussed last year and the timing is not related to the attacks.
Officials said Thursday that delegates from Iraq and the U.S. mission in Baghdad will meet for the first time on Saturday to begin setting up the process for the talks. Officials confirmed the start date on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing planning.
Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh told reporters at a briefing that the U.S. has received no requests from Iraq to withdraw American troops. But she acknowledged that troop totals will be part of the ongoing talks, and any decisions would depend on the security environment.
Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, Iran-backed militants have struck American military installations in Iraq more than 60 times and in Syria more than 90 times, with a mix of drones, rockets, mortars and ballistic missiles.
On Saturday, Kataib Hezbollah launched the militia’s most serious attack this year, firing multiple ballistic missiles at al-Asad Air Base, a large air base in western Iraq where U.S. troops have trained Iraqi security forces and now coordinate operations to counter ISIS. The U.S. responded Tuesday, hitting three known Iranian militia locations and killing some of those fighters, which led to protests for U.S. forces to leave.
The situation highlights the risk of the U.S. being drawn into a wider conflict in Iraq and beyond as anger over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and U.S. support for Israel fuels the strikes by Iranian proxies.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the talks between the U.S. and Iraq are part of a higher military commission that was agreed upon last summer, before the war. The discussions will focus on the “transition to an enduring bilateral security partnership” between the two countries.
Iran-linked factions in Iraq are likely to claim as a victory the announcement about the talks on ending the U.S.-led mission.
A U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide additional details about the commission said the U.S. and Iraq have been discussing this for months and the “timing is not related to recent attacks.” The U.S. will maintain the “full right of self-defense” during the talks, he said.
Iraqi officials have periodically called for a withdrawal of coalition forces for years, particularly in the wake of a U.S. airstrike in January 2020 that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis outside the Baghdad airport.
The U.S. is part of a multinational coalition of forces in Iraq, but it was not clear what the eventual U.S.-Iraq agreements would mean for those other nations. On a background phone call with reporters Thursday to provide additional details on the Iraq-U.S. talks, a U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity that each of those nations would maintain its own bilateral relations with the government of Iraq.
The U.S. has had a continuous presence in Iraq since its 2003 invasion. Although all U.S. combat forces left in 2011, thousands of troops returned in 2014 to help the government of Iraq defeat ISIS.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said there is no longer justification for the coalition’s presence in the country and that the Iraqi army is capable of tracking and fighting the remaining ISIS cells.
“We are a sovereign country, and therefore it is only natural that we moved towards this position,” he said. “This is a request from the people, and this is a democratic country.”
An Iraqi government official said Baghdad had sent a written request to the White House in November for the withdrawal of the coalition forces. The official said that Iraqi and U.S. officials were at odds over the time frame, with U.S. officials proposing a two- to five-year timeline while the Iraqis wanted a more immediate withdrawal.
U.S. forces would likely remain in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, whose government has closer ties to Washington.
– AP, edited for style and space.