Biden to meet Iraq PM, announce ‘new phase’ of US deployment
President Joe Biden, who will host Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi Monday, is expected to launch a “new phase” of the US military presence in Iraq, formally ending combat operations but stopping short of announcing a full withdrawal.
The US troops’ presence in Iraq will be at the heart of Biden’s talks with Kadhemi, a weakened leader under intense pressure from pro-Tehran armed factions demanding the withdrawal of 2,500 US troops still deployed in the country.
The leaders will also discuss Washington’s support for fighting Covid-19, backing for the Iraqi private sector, and cooperation on climate change, according to the White House.
But the main thrust is to provide Kadhemi — in power for little over a year — support to hold onto his job and keep up the fight against the Islamic State group — while also keeping a damper on Iran’s influence in Iraq.
A senior US official who would not be identified praised Kadhemi for being pragmatic and “a problem solver rather than someone who tries to use problems for his own political interests.”
Ahead of the visit Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein told Iraqi media the talks would set “a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces.”
But Washington wants to maintain a presence to at least support Iraqi forces fighting to prevent a revival of IS.
Last week the group, also known as ISIS, claimed a suicide bombing at a Baghdad market that killed 30 people.
“We’re talking about shifting to a new phase in the campaign in which we very much complete the combat mission against ISIS and shift to an advisory and training mission by the end of the year,” the senior US official said.
The official predicted “additional adjustments” could be made by the end of 2021.
“Iraq has requested, and we very much agree, that they need continued training, support with logistics, intelligence, advisory capacity building — all of which will continue,” the official said.
That suggested that many, if not all, of the 2,500 US troops in the country would remain, but in a support and not “combat” role.
The official said the change was “far more than semantics,” though US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Sunday US troops can perform both combat and advisory missions.
“All of our troops are capable of doing multiple things,” Austin told reporters.
Biden and Kadhemi are due to meet at 2:00 pm Washington time (1800 GMT) and have not scheduled a joint press conference, although a statement is to be issued.
– Balancing act –
With three months to go before legislative elections, Kadhemi — whose country has been ravaged by violence, poverty, and corruption — is hoping to regain ground with powerful pro-Iran political factions, which are overtly hostile to the US presence.
He was expected to persuade Washington to ease some sanctions relating to Iran, to help Iraq honor crucial transactions with its neighbor, and tackle ongoing electric power shortages.
But with Iraq, an important strategic partner for the United States in the region, Washington is unlikely to agree to a full pullout that would cede influence to Tehran.
Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq specialist at the University of Chicago’s Pearson Institute, believes the Biden-Kadhemi meeting may cosmetically be “shaped” to help the Iraqi premier alleviate domestic pressures, “but the reality on the ground will reflect the status quo and an enduring US presence.”
The remaining, however, also has its risks.
“If there is no significant announcement on the withdrawal of troops, I fear that the pro-Iran groups may… increase attacks on the US forces,” Iraqi researcher Sajad Jiyad told AFP.
A drone attack was carried out Friday on a military base in Iraqi Kurdistan that hosts American troops but did not cause any casualties.
The Iraqi Resistance Coordination Committee, a group of militia factions, threatened to continue the attacks unless the United States withdraws all its forces and ends the “occupation.”