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U.S. reaffirms commitment to withdrawing troops from Iraq

U.S. soldiers conduct a mortar exercise at a small coalition outpost in western Iraq near the border with Syria on Jan. 24, 2018. (Susannah George/AP)

The United States intends to continue withdrawing troops from Iraq, it said in a statement late Thursday, after the two countries began talks on the future of their strategic relationship.

Seventeen years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the talks, which began Thursday, focus on a wide range of issues. Thorniest among them is the question of foreign troop presence: Iraq’s parliament has urged the U.S.-led coalition to leave, and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is under pressure to satisfy that demand without risking security gaps that Islamic State fighters might exploit.

“The two countries recognized that in light of significant progress towards eliminating the ISIS threat, over the coming months the U.S. would continue reducing forces from Iraq,” the nations said in a joint communique. U.S. officials stressed that they did not seek any form of permanent military presence in Iraq, the statement said.

The United States has some 5,200 troops in Iraq as part of an international coalition fighting the Islamic State. The militant group still poses a threat in Iraq, although one that is much reduced from the period between 2014 and 2017, when it was building and then fighting for a sweeping landmass it described as its “caliphate.”

U.S. and Iraq begin talks on American troop presence as militant threat grows

The U.S.-Iraqi talks cap a period in which bilateral relations have been steadily improving, after they plunged in January to their lowest level in years following President Trump’s decision to order the killing of renowned Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani on Iraqi soil. That act sparked a firestorm of criticism in Iraq and abroad, eroding trust between the two militaries and piling pressure on the coalition to leave.

Departures began in recent months, although it remains unclear how many troops have relocated outside Iraq. In retaliation for the death of Soleimani and one of his closest Iraqi allies, militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iranian-backed militia groups have also accelerated the withdrawal of coalition troops from a handful of smaller Iraqi bases, after a campaign of rocket attacks on facilities where U.S. troops were stationed.

There was no word Friday on when or how another round of troop withdrawals might occur. “There was no discussion of a timeline,” David Schenker, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told reporters.

Addressing reporters in Baghdad, Kadhimi said the U.S.-Iraqi talks were about wresting back political autonomy, a veiled reference to the duel that Washington and Tehran have long fought over Iraq. “We want to safeguard our sovereignty and ensure that Iraq does not become a zone for settling scores,” the new prime minister said.

Kadhimi has inherited crises on several fronts. The economy is teetering after plunging global oil prices left Iraq unable to pay public-sector salaries. In addition, coronavirus cases are spiking, with a government-enforced lockdown threatening the livelihoods of millions of Iraqis who depend wholly on day labor outside the formal economy to make a living.

Thursday’s talks also focused on Iraq’s “enormous economic challenges” and how Washington might help it unlock international financial assistance. The joint statement said U.S. economic advisers would work to help advance Iraqi efforts to implement reforms and attract support from global monetary organizations.

“The two sides reaffirmed the importance of the strategic relationship and their determination to take appropriate steps to enhance it in the interest of both countries and to achieve security, stability, and prosperity in the region,” the statement said.

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