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US military pushes back on reports it may withdraw troops from Iraq

The U.S. has roughly 2,500 troops in Iraq.
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The Pentagon pushed back on reports that the U.S. is withdrawing from Iraq as the two countries announced a joint military commission focused on the next stage of its mission to defeat ISIS. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Terry Vongsouthi).

The Pentagon pushed back on reports that the U.S. is withdrawing from Iraq as the two countries announced a joint military commission focused on the next stage of its mission to defeat ISIS.

U.S. officials on Thursday announced the launch of the Higher Military Commission, or HMC. The working group plans to assess the U.S.-Iraq military partnership based on threats posed by ISIS, operational and environmental requirements and capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces, a senior defense official told reporters in a briefing.

“The HMC meeting is not in negotiation about the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq,” the defense official said. “The United States and the coalition are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government to fight ISIS.” 

The HMC will be led by military and defense experts and made up of expert working groups focused on factors like regional threats and improved capabilities of local forces – not driven by a timeline, a senior military official said. 

The U.S. has roughly 2,500 troops in Iraq as part of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational coalition focused on degrading and destroying ISIS. In December 2021, the U.S. military announced the end of its combat role in Iraq — similar to announcements made in 2003 and 2010 — and transitioned to a mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Iraqi special forces.

On Thursday, officials pushed back against questions about the timing of the HMC announcement in relation to regional escalation which includes more than 150 separate attacks on American troops in Iraq and Syria. The Iranian-backed militia rocket, missile, and drone attacks on U.S. bases began Oct. 18 after the U.S. pledged its support for Israel in its war with Hamas which erupted after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks.

“Obviously, events in recent weeks have caused everyone to have to attend to other business,” the defense official said. “If anything we’re here despite the militia attacks, not because of them.” 

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Officials said that the attacks delayed original plans to launch the HMC in 2023 after discussions during the U.S.-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue in August.

Earlier this week the Pentagon said the total number of troop injuries in Iraq and Syria were at 83. Most injuries have been from concussive events from rockets, mortars, or other indirect fire, or in some cases, one-way drone attacks with eight to 50 kilograms worth of explosives. In a recent January ballistic missile attack on al-Assad air base, four troops were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries. On Christmas, a drone attack left an 82nd Airborne Division pilot with a critical head injury.

“We’re very thankful the casualties have not been severe, or more numerous, and the injuries are not necessarily wounds,” the military official said. “It’s just some of the concussive effects that happened during the blast that happened near their locations on bases.”

Mixed messages about America’s future in Iraq 

In a statement about the HMC, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Iraq is committed to working with the U.S. to defeat ISIS, but that the end goal is a bilateral security partnership. The defense official told reporters that the HMC would address “an eventual transition” for Operation Inherent Resolve, but declined to promise anything beyond that. 

“We are going to work together with our Iraqi partners to help determine the shape of the future U.S. military presence in Iraq, and at the same time, ensure an Iraqi-led enduring defeat of ISIS,” the defense official said. “Beyond that, we won’t speculate.”

Over the last few weeks, several news outlets have reported on the future of U.S. forces in the region. The Iraqi prime minister told the Wall Street Journal that “justifications for the international coalition have ended,” – signaling a desire from the host country to end its invitation of American troops. Foreign Policy also reported U.S. desires to withdraw troops from Syria. A defense official told Task & Purpose Wednesday that there is “no significant change from the status quo.”

An article by the Atlantic Council, “Iraq’s prime minister is sending mixed messages on whether US forces should withdraw or not” pointed to the current Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohamed Shia al-Sudani’s different dynamic with the U.S. compared to its former leader.

Retired Gen. Joseph Votel, former head of U.S. Central Command and fellow at the Middle East Institute said the Iraqi prime minister is under pressure from his government to move international forces out of the country.

“I think this is a way to acknowledge that there’s some discussion going on, but also for the United States, I think, to continue to make its case on why it’s important for us to stay there,” Votel said. 

Jonathan Lord, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for New American Security, a Washington D.C. think tank, said the prime minister’s comments so far have been “pretty non-committal.”

“I don’t think anyone is racing to show us the door. I think perhaps the Iraqis are racing to be seen as showing us the door to otherwise pacify a pretty incensed political block in the government,” he said.

Lord also said that the Iraqi prime minister has to be careful because a U.S. withdrawal under this context could be seen as setting “a precedent where these militias now dictate security policy in Iraq.”

“There’s a lot more at stake here for the Iraqis than just – do we shed the weight of 2,500 U.S. service members in our country and all the political grief that comes with that,” Lord said.

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