The top commander of US forces in the Middle East told lawmakers that he does not foresee a full US withdrawal from Iraq amid continued dialogue with officials in Baghdad.
“That move is not contemplated,” head of US Central Command Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie told members of the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing on Tuesday.
“I don’t see us withdrawing completely from Iraq in the future,” he said.
McKenzie’s response was prompted by a question posed by Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) about the potential consequences of removing the roughly 2,500 US troops who remain in Iraq as the core of the multinational campaign against the Islamic State.
The administration of President Joe Biden has moved to reduce the US military's presence in the Middle East as it seeks to counter China’s rise in East Asia. All US and NATO forces, in addition to military contractors, have been ordered to leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is also leading an internal Pentagon review of the wider distribution of US forces across the globe. The inquiry is scheduled to be completed by this summer.
The Biden administration held the latest round of so-called strategic dialogue with Iraqi officials earlier this month but has thus far avoided publicly stating any clear decision about the future of US troops in the country.
A joint statement released by the two governments on April 7 said only that the US-led coalition’s pivot to an advisory role in Iraq has enabled the eventual “redeployment of any remaining combat forces” out of the country. The timing of that move is to be determined in future bilateral discussions, the statement read.
But the US-led coalition has long insisted its mission is strictly advisory. Thousands of American military personnel departed Iraq last year as the coalition pulled out of eight bases around the country in order to focus on mentoring Iraqi commanders at headquarters in Anbar, Baghdad and Erbil.
With the exception of US infantry units conducting on-base security and elite JSOC operators in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, there are almost no American troops left in the country who could be characterized as “combat forces,” according one current and one former official familiar with the matter.
Moreover, the expansion of NATO’s advisory mission in Iraq is likely to require additional US logistical and security support, according to the former official. The US military “will contribute its fair share” to the expansion of NATO’s mission, Pentagon spokesperson Jessica McNulty told Al-Monitor via email in February.
At least some of the mixed messaging out of Washington appears to be aimed at relieving pressure on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ahead of Iraq's October elections. Kadhimi is warding off increased hostility from pro-Iran militias who have sought the expulsion of US forces from the country.
“He’s under death threat. His family is under death threat,” said the former US official, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.
A convoy of Shiite militiamen armed with automatic weapons and RPGs paraded through central Baghdad ahead of this month's round of strategic dialogue, openly threatening to cut off Kadhimi's ear.
So far, the assurance of further US troop reductions appears to have found at least some audience among pro-Iran factions in Baghdad.
“Provided that their numbers, missions and whereabouts are known, there is no objection to the presence of advisers for training and development purposes,” said Mahmoud al-Rubai, spokesperson for a political wing of the pro-Iran Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, in a statement earlier this month.
“We leave the matter to be determined by the competent authorities,” said al-Rubai.
“The militias seem to be taking the win,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“They don’t actually want a fight with the US, nor does Iran,” Knights told Al-Monitor.
Biden administration officials are in no hurry to pull US forces from Iraq, a risky move that could destabilize the country amid continued coalition pressure on IS and international negotiations with Iran, according to two former officials familiar with recent discussions.
“They’re very hesitant to fully draw down,” the first former official said.
The return of Barack Obama-era veterans of the campaign against IS such as Brett McGurk, now Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council, and Christopher Maier, now the Pentagon’s acting top civilian official overseeing special operations, is likely to help bolster that stance, the former official said.
Meanwhile, projectile attacks on coalition positions in Iraq have continued in recent months. Last week an unmanned drone laden with explosives damaged a warehouse at Erbil Air Base, but no injuries were reported.
Two foreign contractors and three Iraqi personnel were wounded on Sunday when rockets hit Balad Air Base, home to Iraq's F-16 fleet.
On Tuesday McKenzie attributed the recent attacks to Iran’s failure to rally political pressure to expel US forces from Iraq following the Donald Trump administration's killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad last year.
“They failed in doing that,” McKenzie said.
“As a result, we’re beginning to see attacks from their Shia groups in the region ramp up, and I think that’s going to continue," the commander predicted.