In AP Interview, General Says US Troops Will Stay in Iraq

By Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns | Associated press

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top US commander for the Middle East said on Thursday the US would keep the current 2,500 troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future, and he warned he expects attacks to increase against US and Iraqi personnel by Iranian-backed militias determined to win US forces out.

Marine General Frank McKenzie said in an Associated Press interview at the Pentagon that despite the shift of US forces to a non-combat role in Iraq, they will still provide air support and other military aid to the fight. of Iraq against the Islamic State.

Noting that Iranian-backed militias want all Western forces to leave Iraq, he said a continued increase in violence could continue until December.

“They actually want all American forces to leave, and not all American forces will leave,” he said, adding that as a result, “this could elicit a response as the end of the month approaches. “.

The Iraqi government announced earlier Thursday the conclusion of talks on ending the US combat mission against ISIS. US forces have played a largely advisory role for some time, so little of the announced transition changes. The announcement reflects a July decision by the Biden administration to end the US combat mission in Iraq by December 31.

“We withdrew from bases that we did not need, we made it more difficult to access us. But the Iraqis still want us to be there. They still want the presence, they still want the engagement, ”McKenzie said. “So as long as they want to and we can mutually agree that’s the case, we’ll be there. “

He said he believed Islamic State militants would continue to be a threat in Iraq and that the group would “continue to recreate itself, perhaps under a different name.” The key, he said, will be to make sure that IS is not able to merge with other elements in the world and grow stronger and more dangerous.

America invaded Iraq in 2003, and at its peak, more than 170,000 troops were fighting insurgents in the country and later working to train and advise Iraqi forces. All US forces were withdrawn in late 2011, but only three years later US troops were back to help Iraq push back the Islamic State group, which had crossed the Syrian border to gain control of much. from the country.

The US presence in Iraq has long been a flashpoint for Tehran, but tensions increased after a US drone strike in January 2020 near Baghdad airport killed a senior Iranian general. In retaliation, Iran launched a missile barrage at al-Asad air base, where US troops were stationed. More than 100 servicemen suffered traumatic brain injuries in the blasts.

More recently, Iranian proxies are suspected of being responsible for an assassination attempt last month against Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. And officials said they believed Iran was behind the October drone attack on the southern Syrian military outpost where US troops are based. No US personnel were killed or injured in the attack.

“I think an attack to kill the Prime Minister is quite an important event,” McKenzie said. “I think that’s a sign of the desperation they’re in right now.” Iranian officials have said Tehran and its allies have nothing to do with last month’s drone attack which slightly injured the Iraqi prime minister.

McKenzie, who led the US Central Command for nearly three years and has traveled extensively throughout the region, painted a picture that reflects the recent upheavals in Afghanistan, where US troops left in late August.

On Afghanistan, McKenzie said the extremist al-Qaida group had grown slightly since the departure of US forces and the ruling Taliban leadership was divided over their 2020 pledge to sever ties with the group. He said the departure of US military and intelligence resources from the country has made it “very difficult, not impossible” to ensure that neither al-Qaida nor the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State group can pose a threat to the United States.

Like the Taliban’s long campaign to get Americans out of Afghanistan, Iran and its proxies fought to get the United States out of Iraq and the wider Middle East.

“Iran is still pursuing a vision of ejecting us,” he said. “And they see the main battleground for it in Iraq. And I think they think they can increase the friction in Iraq to where we go. “

Iran, he said, believes this campaign will not affect nuclear negotiations which were at a standstill for a long time but are now restarting. But, he said, “I think it’s a dangerous position for the Iranians to maintain, because I think they won’t be able to decouple those two things.”

McKenzie said that as NATO begins to expand its presence in Iraq as planned, the United States will refine its forces there. And the full presence of US forces will depend on future agreements with the Iraqi government.

US troops in Syria, currently around 900, will continue to advise and assist Syrian rebel forces in the fight against ISIS, McKenzie said. He said it was not clear how long that would be needed, but said: “I think we’re noticeably closer than a few years ago. I still think we have a long way to go.

More generally, McKenzie noted that the presence of US troops in the Middle East has declined significantly since last year, when it peaked amid tensions with Iran, down to 80,000. The United States has identified China and Russia as the main national security threats, calling China a “stimulating challenge” from America, and sought to focus more efforts and assets in the Pacific.

In its recent review of the positioning of US forces in the world, the Pentagon has said little about the withdrawal or repositioning of troops in the Middle East. McKenzie and other senior military leaders have long feared that the U.S. military is concentrated in too few places in the Middle East and must disperse further to increase security.

“We believe it is important to work with our partners in the region to present a more complex targeting problem to Iran,” he said, adding that the United States would examine other bases and opportunities. to move troops to achieve this goal.

McKenzie said he was particularly concerned about Iran’s development of ballistic and cruise missiles as well as armed drones.

“And so these things concern me a lot because they continue to develop them,” he said. “And they show no sign of slowing down in their research in this area and in their deployment of new and increasingly lethal and capable weapons.”

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