The U.S. military announced on December 9, 2021, that it had transitioned to an advise and assist mission in Iraq, but that approximately 2500 field staff would remain, staying on in support roles under the leadership of NATO’s Iraq Mission Commander, Lt. Gen. Michael Lollesgaard, and U.S. Maj. Gen. John W. Brennan Jr., the Commander of the anti-ISIS task force in Iraq. “As we complete our combat role, we will remain here to advise, assist and enable the ISF (Iraqi security forces), at the invitation of the Republic of Iraq”, coalition commander Major General John. W. Brennan Jr. said in a statement.
While the announcement signaled the latest change in its mission in Iraq since the United States invaded it 18 years ago, the change did not reduce the number of American military forces in the country, but rather it would keep the same number of soldiers on the ground in support roles. Maj. Gen. Brennan described the terrorist group, ISIS as “down but not out”.
The announcement came at the conclusion of Military Technical Talks on December 9, 2021, a series of discussions that followed the Joint Dialogue between the governments of the United States and Iraq on July 26, 2021, between President Biden and Mustafa-Al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s Prime Minister. After this, President Biden committed to removing all combat forces by the end of 2021.
According to the agreement, there would be no U.S. forces with a combat role in Iraq by December 31, 2021, and Iraqi forces, operating from Iraqi bases, would protect the coalition personnel, who are invited guests. The announcement noted that while coalition troops in Iraq do not have a combat role, they maintain the right to self-defense.
As part of the transition, the U.S. military said that it had recently moved a logistics headquarters from a base in the western al-Anbar province to Kuwait.
For the Iraqi government, the withdrawal of combat troops was indeed a political victory, aimed at fending off pressure from Iranian-backed political parties and militias opposed to any presence of U.S. forces in Iraq.
The announcement comes just a few months after the withdrawal from Afghanistan following a 20-year occupation. But the U.S. Administration has resisted a complete pullout from Iraq, where another war began after the September 11 attacks, because it saw fending off the influence of Iran and the ongoing threat of the Islamic State as crucial to American strategic interests.
What is the situation for Islamic State in Iraq, in 2021?
Although Islamic State no longer holds territory in Iraq, it maintains sleeper cells in Iraq and Syria, and is waging a continued low-level insurgency that regularly kills Iraqi soldiers and civilians in remote mountain and desert areas. While Iraqi forces have become increasingly proficient at fighting ISIS, they still rely on the U.S.-led coalition for intelligence help, operational planning, and air support.
Whether this announcement will be enough to appease Iranian-backed military groups, who have been calling for the complete withdrawal of American forces, is still unclear. The United States has repeatedly blamed Iranian-backed militias for attacks on the American Embassy and U.S. bases within larger Iraqi bases. The militia groups say they are avenging the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s top security and intelligence commander and a senior Iraqi paramilitary commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who were killed in an American drone strike in Baghdad 2020. After the strike, Iraq’s Parliament requested the government to expel U.S. forces, a motion that was non-binding but sent a strong message to any politician who wanted to stay in power, including the Iraqi Prime Minister.
Western security and diplomatic officials say that calling the shift a “withdrawal” is misleading because it changes little in terms of the number of forces based in Iraq. Most of the forces have been operating only in training and advisory roles for some time.
What happened when the U.S. military withdrew its forces from Iraq in 2011?
It is important to note that the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq in 2011 after failing to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government. Three years later, in 2014, the Iraqi government asked it to return to help drive out Islamic State, which had conquered one-third of Iraq and large parts of Syria.
Daesh’s 40,000 fighters in Iraq once terrorized 8 million people within 11,000 square kilometers of Iraq and Syria. U.S. troops fought alongside Iran-backed Hashd al-Bahaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF) during 2014-2017 against the Islamic State group. The decline of ISIL, which Baghdad declared victory over in December 2017, put an end to the main reason for the presence of U.S. military forces in Iraq.
What is the reason behind the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2021?
The move came after Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Major General Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed near Baghdad’s international airport in 2020, in a drone strike ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The attack came just days after hundreds of PMF (Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi, Popular Mobilization Forces) attempted to attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, angry at U.S. airstrikes against Kataib Hezbollah positions in Iraq and Syria. Since the killings of prominent military leaders, rival Shia political leaders have called for US troops to be expelled from Iraq in an unusual show of unity among factions that have disagreed with each other for months.
Iraq’s Parliament passed a resolution on January 5, 2020, calling on the government to expel foreign troops from the country as Iran-US tensions escalated following the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad. In an extraordinary parliamentary session, parliament called on the government to end the presence of all foreign troops in Iraq and to cancel its request for assistance from the US-led coalition, which had been working with Baghdad to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The resolution was passed by the Iraqi parliament.
Many Sunnis and Kurdish parliamentarians boycotted it, as many Sunnis and Kurdish do not want US troops to leave Iraq. Such a move would only create a security vacuum and allow Iran to have increased influence in Iraq, which is seen as much more dangerous than a US presence.
The resolution to expel US troops in Iraq was a politicization of the response to the killings of Soleimani and Muhandis. Before the strike, the Iraqi public was not vocally anti-American, but pro-Iranian groups have been trying to expel US troops for years.