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Biden to meet Iraqi PM as Middle East tensions soar

US President Joe Biden arrives at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 13, 2024. Biden cut short a weekend trip to Delaware on Saturday to return to Washington for urgent consultations on the Middle East, the White House said. Iran launched drones at Israel directly from its territory Saturday, the Israeli army said.
— Washington (AFP)

US President Joe Biden will meet Iraq's Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani at the White House Monday, after Iran's attack on Israel sent tensions soaring across the Middle East.

Sudani's trip to Washington, his first since taking office in October 2022, was originally expected to focus on the presence of US troops in Iraq as part of an anti-jihadist coalition.

But the meeting will now be dominated by the fractious situation in the region after Iraq's neighbor Iran launched a massive missile and drone assault on Israel on Saturday.

US forces based near the northern Iraq city of Erbil were involved in the operation to counter Iran's attack on Israel, using a Patriot missile battery to shoot down an Iranian ballistic missile.

"This official visit occurs at a delicate and sensitive time in the relations with the United States, as well as in the context of regional conditions," a statement from Sudani's office said ahead of his departure on Saturday.

The White House said in March that Biden and Sudani would discuss "our shared commitment to the lasting defeat of ISIS and evolution of the military mission."

Iraq has been trying to stay out of regional tensions amid the six-month war waged by Israel against Iran-backed Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza, following Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel.

Armed groups linked to Iran, including some based in Iraq, have since carried out a series of attacks on facilities belonging to the United States, which is Israel's main ally.

Iraq, hoping not to be consumed by US-Iran hostility, strongly protested a US drone strike in February that killed an Iraqi militia leader, carried out in retaliation for an attack that killed three US service members in Jordan.

But tensions have since subsided between Washington and Baghdad, and they resumed talks on the future of the US-led coalition.

Iraqi authorities have voiced hope for drawing up a timeline to reduce the presence of US forces.

A US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, but Washington withdrew most of its troops by 2011.

But US forces were redeployed in 2014 as part of a campaign to defeat the Islamic State extremist group, better known as ISIS, which had seized vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.

The United States currently has some 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in neighboring Syria as part of the coalition.