US announces end to combat mission in Iraq, but troops will not leave

US soldiers patrolling an area in Iraq near Syria's Semalka border crossing on Nov 1, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

BAGHDAD (NYTIMES) - The US military on Thursday (Dec 9) said it had completed its transition from a combat mission in Iraq to one meant to "advise, assist and enable" Iraqi forces that are battling the remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.

While the announcement signalled the latest shift in the mission in Iraq since the United States invaded 18 years ago, the move does not reduce the number of US forces in the country; rather, it will keep the same number of soldiers - roughly 2,500 - on the ground in support roles.

"We have come a long way since the coalition answered the call for help," Major-General John Brennan, commander of the anti-ISIS group task force in Iraq, said in a statement. "In this new phase, our transformative partnership with Iraq symbolises the need for constant vigilance."

For the Iraqi government, the stated removal of combat troops was a political victory aimed at fending off pressure from Iranian-backed political parties and militias opposed to any presence of US forces.

It follows talks between President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in July, after which the President committed to removing all combat forces by the end of the year.

The move was seen by US officials at the time as an effort to relieve pressure on Mr al-Kadhimi, a US ally who has had to balance ties with Iran to keep his position.

US and Iraqi forces held a low-key ceremony in Baghdad on Thursday afternoon marking the transition to an "advise and assist" mission, an acknowledgement that US troops will largely continue to fulfil the same roles they have been in since the territorial defeat of the ISIS group three years ago.

The US military withdrew from Iraq in 2011 after failing to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government. Three years later, the Iraqi government asked it to return to help drive out the ISIS group, which conquered one-third of Iraq and large parts of Syria.

Whether Thursday's announcement would be enough to appease Iranian-backed militia groups that have been calling for the complete withdrawal of US forces is still unclear.

One militia group now part of Iraqi government security forces said it had "no trust in any promise" made by the US.

"If US forces do not withdraw at the end of the year, it can be defined only as an occupation," Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba said in a statement.

The militia is among the paramilitary forces mobilised in 2014 to fight the ISIS and was later absorbed into Iraq's official security forces and put on the public payroll.

"Targeting the US occupation in Iraq is a great honour, and we support the factions that target it," the group said.

The US statement on Thursday noted that while coalition troops in Iraq do not have a combat role, they maintain the right to self-defence.

The US has repeatedly blamed Iranian-backed militias for attacks on the US Embassy and US bases within larger Iraqi bases. The militia groups say they are avenging the killing of Maj-Gen Qassem Soleimani - Iran's top security and intelligence commander and a senior Iraqi security commander - in a US drone strike in Baghdad last year.

Tension in Iraq has been heightened by the disputed results of parliamentary elections in October.

The country's main Iranian-backed parties, some of them the political arms of militias, emerged with significantly fewer seats, while the movement of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gained seats.

Mr Sadr's fighters fought against US forces during the US occupation of Iraq, but he is now seen as a nationalist and a balancing force against more pro-Iran factions.

The groups that lost seats have called the election fraudulent, raising the prospect of violence if a federal court certifies the results as expected on Monday.

While violence by and among competing armed Shi'ite factions is the most immediate concern in Iraq, the ISIS group continues to pose a threat.

Maj-Gen Brennan, in his comments on Thursday, described the terrorist group as "down but not out".

Although the ISIS no longer holds territory, it maintains sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria. It has recently resurfaced in an area of Iraq claimed by both the federal government and Kurdish Iraqi forces.

While Iraqi forces have become increasingly proficient at fighting the ISIS, they still rely on the US-led coalition for intelligence help, operational planning and air support.

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