Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Tuesday and said that the US is committed to maintaining its military presence in the country.
The US currently has about 2,500 troops based in Iraq to help the Iraqi government fight against ISIS. Austin’s visit to the country comes ahead of the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, which destabilized the region and led to the rise of ISIS.
“I should underscore that US forces are ready to remain in Iraq, at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, to support the Iraqi-led fight against Daesh (ISIS),” Austin said in comments to the media while in Erbil, Iraq.
The US presence in Iraq is a divisive issue, as many are opposed to US troops being stationed there. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani came out in favor of the continued presence in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in January after keeping silent on the issue.
Austin traveled to Baghdad to meet with al-Sudani and Iraqi Defense Minister Defense Thabit al-Abbasi. According to the Pentagon, Austin and al-Sudani “renewed their mutual commitment to long-term defense cooperation.”
Al-Sudani’s predecessor, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, was under a lot of pressure to get US forces to leave as he came into office a few months after the US killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020. The strike also killed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and led to the Iraqi parliament voting to expel US troops.
The pressure led to Kadhimi working out a deal that led to the US formally ending its “combat mission” in Iraq at the end of 2021, changing it to an “advisory role.” But the move was just a formality and had no impact on the number of US forces in Iraq as no troops were withdrawn.
The US presence in Iraq supports the US occupation of Syria, where about 900 US troops are stationed. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley made a rare visit to Syria over the weekend to justify the continued presence. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has introduced a War Powers Resolution to withdraw all US troops from Syria that the House is expected to vote on Wednesday.