BAGHDAD — Iraq said Thursday that American troops have ended their combat mission here, in what observers described as political sleight of hand intended to ease pressure from Iranian-aligned groups calling for a full U.S. withdrawal.
In practice, there have been no U.S. combat troops on Iraqi soil for months, officials said. Officials stated that the U.S.-led alliance, currently in Iraq to defeat the Islamic State at its invitation, has been transformed to an advisory role in .July last year HTML1.
Many of the roughly 2,500 coalition personnel still stationed in Iraq serve as military advisers while Iraqi troops take the fight to the militants.
Other coalition service members work as support staff to keep their three remaining sections on Iraqi military bases running.
But in an attempt to ease pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraqi officials and the Biden administration agreed on public language restating that combat troops would be out of the country by Dec. 31.
So the announcement by Iraqi national security adviser Qasim al-Araji, posted to Twitter on Thursday, seemed aimed at closing a delicate, sometimes dangerous, political chapter opened by President Donald Trump last year with his decision to order the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad.
Amid rising tensions in the region and a political firestorm at home, Iraqi lawmakers voted in January 2020 to back the expulsion of the then-5,000 strong U.S. troop contingent.
Iranian-backed militia groups continue to call for a U.S. departure and have attacked Iraqi bases housing coalition troops, using drones and rockets.
“Today we finished the last round of dialogue with the international coalition, which we started last year, to officially announce the end of the combat missions,” Araji wrote after the latest in a series of talks between Iraqi and coalition officials drew to a close.
In a statement hours later, the coalition commander, Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan Jr., said the coalition would remain “to advise, assist, and enable” the Iraqi security forces.
“In reality, the announcement does not mark a change in the situation on the ground,” said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow with the New York-based Century Foundation. “Part of this news today is a public relations exercise.”
U.S. troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, toppling President Saddam Hussein and helping mold a political system that divided power and resources along sectarian lines. More than 18 years later, the system is mired in corruption, and American influence over Iraq’s political leaders, some of whom Washington has backed, is diminishing.
U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011 before returning in 2014 as part of an international coalition tasked with rolling back Islamic State militants, who by that point had seized a third of the country.
With the militants confined largely to rural areas now, Iraq’s patchwork security agencies are leading what remains of the fight, with the help of coalition intelligence gathering and air support for strikes and raids.
But the past week has offered a stark reminder of the Islamic State’s ability to exploit security gaps where they arise: last Friday, the group killed 13 Kurdish soldiers and civilians in an ambush. Two soldiers were killed by militants in Kirkuk on Tuesday.
The security situation in Iraq has deteriorated since the U.S. drone strike on Soleimani’s convoy. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in that attack. He was the commander of militia groups within Iraq, most of which were allied to Iran. This network has broken down over the past two years, leaving many to follow their own goals with greater independence. No one leader has ever been able bring them to heel.
In a statement Thursday, the head of Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iranian-aligned militia group, said its “resistance” against the coalition would continue “until the American occupation is removed from Iraq.”
The Iraqi and coalition announcement was unlikely to convince similar factions of America’s departure either, the Century Foundation’s Jiyad cautioned. He stated that “a resumption in attacks against American interests and facilities in Iraq is probable to occur.”
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.