On the eve of the 19th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, the head of Central Command told Military Times that the US troop presence in the country will likely continue for years to come.
The US invasion of Iraq started with airstrikes on March 19, 2003, and ground troops entered the country the following day. The initial “shock and awe” phase of the invasion lasted about six weeks and killed tens of thousands. According to the Iraq Body Count, about 7,400 Iraqi civilians were killed in this period.
All US troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned to the country in 2014 to fight ISIS, a group that wouldn’t exist if not for the invasion and US intervention in Syria. Today, the US currently has about 2,500 troops in Iraq. At the end of 2021, the US formally changed its presence in Iraq from a combat role to an advisory one, but no troops were withdrawn.
“As we look into the future, any force level adjustment in Iraq is going to be made as a result of consultations with the government of Iraq,” CENTCOM chief Gen. Frank McKenzie said. “And we just finished a strategic dialogue a few months ago — we believe that will continue.”
While the US troops are in Iraq training the current government to fight ISIS, there are many factions in the country opposed to the US presence, including Iraq’s Shia militias. Most of the militias fall under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a group that was formed in 2014 to fight ISIS.
In January 2020, the US killed PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis alongside Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani with a drone strike in Baghdad. The assassinations enraged many in Iraq, and the country’s parliament voted to expel the US forces, but they stayed, and rocket attacks on US bases increased.
Formally ending the combat mission was an attempt to placate those opposed to the US presence. But at the beginning of 2022, when it became apparent the US wasn’t leaving, attacks on bases housing US troops spiked again, highlighting the danger of the continued presence.
One reason the US doesn’t want to leave Iraq is that its bases in the country support the US occupation of eastern Syria. The US currently has about 900 troops in Syria where it backs the Kurdish-led SDF. On paper, the US presence is about fighting ISIS, but it is also part of Washington’s broader campaign against Damascus.
The US maintains crippling sanctions on Syria that aim to prevent the country from rebuilding. The US also occupies the area where most of the country’s oil fields are, keeping the vital resource out of the hands of Damascus. Last year, Biden administration officials said that they had no plans to end the troop presence in Syria.