Iraqi Prime Minister Says His Country No Longer Needs American Combat Troops To Fight Islamic State groups, but the formal timing of their redeployment will depend on the outcome of talks with US officials this week.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi said Iraq will continue to ask the United States to train and collect military intelligence. His comments were published in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press ahead of his planned trip to Washington where should he meet with the president Joe Biden the fourth round of strategic talks will take place on Monday.
“There is no need for any foreign combat force on Iraqi soil,” al-Kadhimi said, before he could announce a deadline for the withdrawal of American troops. The Iraqi security forces and army are capable of defending the country without US-led coalition troops, he said.
But al-Kadhimi said any withdrawal schedule would be based on the needs of Iraqi forces, which in the past year have shown themselves capable of conducting independent missions against IS.
“The war against IS and the readiness of our forces requires a special schedule, and it depends on the negotiations that we will conduct in Washington,” he said.
In April, the US and Iraq agreed that a US transition to a training and advisory mission would mean the end of the US combat role, but they did not agree on a timetable for completing this transition. At a White House meeting on Monday, the two leaders are expected to set deadlines, possibly before the end of this year.
The presence of US troops has stood at around 2,500 since late last year, when former President Donald Trump ordered that it be cut from 3,000.
The US mission to train and advise Iraqi troops dates back to former President Barack Obama’s recent decision in 2014 to send troops back to Iraq. The move came in response to the seizure of large parts of western and northern Iraq by an Islamic State group and the collapse of Iraqi security forces, which appeared to threaten Baghdad Obama withdrew US troops completely from Iraq in 2011, eight years after the US invasion.
“What we want from the US presence in Iraq is to support our forces in training and developing their effectiveness and capabilities, as well as in cooperation in the field of security,” said al-Qadimi.
The trip to Washington came as the prime minister’s administration faced one setback after another, seriously undermining public confidence. Ongoing rocket attacks by militia groups have highlighted the state’s limited ability to prevent them, and a series of devastating hospital fires amid soaring coronavirus cases have claimed the lives of dozens.
Meanwhile, there are less than three months left before early federal elections, in line with the promise made by al-Qadimi when he took office.
However, the main issue on Washington’s agenda is the future of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq.
Iraq declared victory over IS at the end of 2017 after a devastating and bloody war. The continued presence of US troops has become a problem for the political class in Iraq after a US-driven drone strike killed the powerful Iranian General Qasim Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Iraqi soil last year.
To quell the threat of widespread instability in the aftermath of targeted assassinations, the United States and Iraq held at least three rounds of strategic negotiations focusing on Iraq’s military needs in its ongoing fight against IS, as well as to formalize a timetable for withdrawal.
Four years after their territorial defeat, IS militants can still attack the capital and roam the harsh northern region of the country. Last week, a suicide bomber killed 30 people in a busy market in Baghdad. This attack was later announced by IS.
Al-Qadimi faced significant pressure from mainly Shiite political parties to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. Ongoing missile and, more recently, drone attacks targeting the US military presence have also put tremendous pressure on the government. It is widely believed that they are perpetrated by Iraqi militants with ties to Iran.
The announcement of the withdrawal of combat troops may serve to appease Shiite parties, but will have little impact on the situation on the ground: the coalition’s combat mission effectively ended in November, when the Pentagon cut US troops in the country to 2,500, according to Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein. Shiite parties have said they have no objection to instructors or advisers who may remain in the coalition.
US and coalition officials have argued that US troops are no longer escorting Iraqi troops on ground operations and that coalition assistance is limited to intelligence gathering and surveillance and the deployment of advanced military technology. Iraqi military officials stressed that they continue to need this support.
“Iraq has a set of American weapons that require maintenance and training. We will ask the American side to continue to support our forces and develop our capabilities, ”said al-Qadimi.
Al-Qadimi came to power as an agreed candidate after months of political strife between rival parliamentary blocs. The blocs were a coalition of the ardent clergy of Muqtada al-Sadr, on the one hand, and the Fatah group, led by the commander of the paramilitary forces and former minister Hadi al-Ameri.
The stakes were high: Al-Qadimi’s predecessor resigned under pressure from historic massive anti-government protests. At least 600 people were killed when Iraqi forces fired live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Al-Qadimi presented himself as a supporter of the protesters’ demands and set himself a noble agenda: he promised to hold early elections, which are now scheduled for October. 10, and prosecute the killers of the activists, including the one who killed the prominent commentator Hisham al-Hashimi outside his home last summer.
According to many, the arrest of an Interior Ministry official in connection with the shooting of al-Hashimi was unsuccessful because it did not reveal which group ordered the killing.
Critics say al-Qadimi did not go far enough. This is partly due to the fact that the very conditions that contributed to his ascent to the post of prime minister also served as his main limitation in parliament.
Political opposition loosened up ambitious economic reforms aimed at Iraq’s bloated public sector as the country faced a disastrous financial crisis following a plunge in oil prices. With no party to back him in parliament and rival parties vying for control of ministries and other government agencies, al-Qadimi’s government looked weak.
Repeated clashes with Iran-backed militia groups following the arrest of militias suspected of attacks on the US embassy and US troops have further undermined the government’s credibility.
Activists whose calls for elections once resonated in squares in the capital now say they will boycott the October elections, not believing that the political establishment will ever be able to hold free and fair elections.
The UN Observer Mission was created in the hopes of boosting voter turnout. But protesters recently took to the streets and expressed outrage at the growing killings of prominent activists and journalists. Even al-Kadhimi admitted that certain forces were actively trying to undermine the poll results.
“We are in a delicate situation. We need to calm down the political situation until we get to the elections, ”he said.
Al-Kadhimi has managed to prove himself in one area: as a regional mediator. Iraq’s friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran have put both regional adversaries at the negotiating table for at least two rounds of talks in Baghdad.
“Iraq has managed to win the confidence of these countries, and, accordingly, it strives for stability in the region.”
Associated Press writer Robert Burns from Washington prepared the reports.