Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin confirmed on Thursday that the US and Iraq will start talks on the future of the US military presence in Iraq in the “coming days,” which could result in a US withdrawal.
Baghdad has been calling for an end to the presence of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition in response to recent US airstrikes in Iraq. Tensions are soaring as Iraqi Shia militias have been attacking US bases in both Iraq and Syria due to President Biden’s support for the Israeli slaughter in Gaza.
Austin said the two countries will convene a meeting of the US-Iraq Higher Military Commission (HMC), which was formed last summer. Signaling that the US wants to maintain some sort of presence in Iraq, Austin said the HMC will “enable the transition to an enduring bilateral security partnership between the United States and Iraq.”
There are about 2,500 US troops in Iraq as part of the anti-ISIS coalition, known as Operation Inherent Resolve. In recent years, the US presence in Iraq has been more about pushing back against Iran’s influence in the country as ISIS has been reduced to small remnants.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has said that Iraq’s security forces can handle ISIS without the US. Austin said the “transition” in the US presence depends on three factors: “the threat from ISIS, operational and environmental requirements, and the Iraqi security forces’ capability levels.”
There have been reports that indicate the US is also considering ending its military occupation of eastern Syria. There are about 900 US troops, and the US is able to control about one-third of Syria’s territory by backing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Sources within the Pentagon and State Department told Foreign Policy that the White House “is no longer invested in sustaining a mission that it perceives as unnecessary.” Al-Monitor reported that the Pentagon floated a plan for the SDF to partner with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, which is under crippling US sanctions.
US officials told POLITICO that a withdrawal from Syria or Iraq is not imminent but did acknowledge there are conversations within the Biden administration about pulling troops out of Syria. However, another US official told CNN that the US was not considering leaving Syria.