Biden and Iraqi PM to announce end to US military combat mission

Joe Biden and the Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, are expected to announce on Monday an agreement to end the US military combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year, according to a senior Biden administration official.

The plan to shift the US military mission, whose stated purpose is to help Iraq defeat the Islamic State, to a strictly advisory and training role will be spelled out in a broader communique to be issued by the two leaders following a White House meeting on Monday afternoon, said the official.

The official said Iraqi security forces were “battle tested” and have proved themselves “capable” of protecting their country. Still, the Biden administration recognizes that Isis remains a considerable threat, the official said.

Isis was largely routed on the battlefield in 2017. But it can still carry out high-casualty attacks. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that killed at least 30 and wounded dozens in a suburban Baghdad market.

The US and Iraq agreed in April that the transition to a train-and-advise mission meant the US combat role would end, but did not settle on a timetable. The announcement comes less than three months before parliamentary elections.

Kadhimi faces no shortage of problems. Iranian-backed militias inside Iraq have stepped up attacks against US forces while a series of devastating hospital fires left dozens dead and coronavirus infections have soared.

For Kadhimi, the ability to offer the Iraqi public a date for the end of the US combat presence could be a feather in his cap ahead of the election. Biden officials say al-Kadhimi also deserves credit for improving Iraq’s standing.

Last month, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited Baghdad for joint meetings – the first time an Egyptian president has made an official visit since the 1990s, when ties were severed after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

In March, Pope Francis made an historic visit to Iraq, praying among ruined churches in Mosul, a former Isis stronghold, and meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an influential Shia cleric, in the holy city of Najaf.

Kadhimi has made clear he believes it’s time for the US to wind down the combat mission.

“There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil,” he told the Associated Press.

The US troop presence has stood at about 2,500 since late last year when Donald Trump ordered a reduction from 3,000. The announcement to end the combat mission comes as the US is in the final stages of ending its war in Afghanistan, nearly 20 years after George W Bush launched that war in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The US mission of training and advising Iraqi forces has its origins in Barack Obama’s decision in 2014 to send troops back to the country. The move was made in response to an Isis takeover of large portions of western and northern Iraq and a collapse of Iraqi security forces that appeared to threaten Baghdad. Obama had fully withdrawn US forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after the US invasion.

The distinction between combat troops and those involved in training and advising can be blurry, given that the US troops are under threat of attack. But it is clear that US ground forces have not been on the offensive in Iraq in years, other than largely unpublicized special operations missions aimed at Isis.

A major complication is the periodic attacks on bases housing US and coalition troops by Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran. The vulnerability of US troops was demonstrated in January 2020 when Iran launched a missile attack on al-Asad air base in western Iraq. No Americans were killed but dozens suffered traumatic brain injury.

That was shortly after a US drone strike killed the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport.

Monday’s meeting was also expected to detail US efforts to assist the Iraqi government’s Covid-19 response, education system and energy sector.

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