President of the United States Joe Biden announced on Monday that the United States would be ending its combat mission in Iraq by the end of this year, ahead of a bilateral meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.
A White House readout of the bilateral meeting said that the two leaders had agreed to transition the US military presence in Iraq to a “purely advisory” role. A joint statement issued through the State Department says that US forces will only provide training, advising, assisting, and intelligence-sharing to Iraqi security forces, including the Peshmerga, by December 31, 2021, pledging to continue supplying “the resources Iraq needs to preserve its territorial integrity”. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, reaffirmed its commitment to protect Coalition personnel advising and enabling Iraqi security forces, reasserting that Coalition forces are in Iraq at its invitation.
Neither leader commented on what the end of the combat mission would mean for US troop counts in Iraq. There are around 2,500 US troops currently in Iraq, with the majority of them already training and supporting Iraqi security forces. Also on Monday, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman US Army Colonel Wayne Marotto announced the delivery of $25 million of communications equipment to Iraqi security forces under the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund. According to Col. Marotto, the fund has supplied over $5 billion of equipment, vehicles, uniforms, stipends, medical supplies and other items to Iraqi security forces since 2014, while the Coalition has trained over 240,000 members of Iraqi security forces in the same period to “protect Iraq against Daesh and other threats”. He stressed that Iraqi security forces were now “in the lead in the fight against Daesh”, saying that they were a professional force that “continues to show their proficiency through successful independent operations”.
After withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, US forces returned to Iraq in 2014 as part of what would become known as Operation Inherent Resolve, initially with troops to support and protect the US diplomatic presence in Iraq, and then to build up Iraqi forces’ ability to halt and reverse ISIS offensives in Iraq alongside airstrikes on ISIS targets. However, US forces conducting train-and-advise missions in Iraq following the territorial defeat of ISIS have been subject to attacks by Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units, even as US-trained Iraqi forces continue to hunt down ISIS cells in the country. The assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani failed to deter these attacks, and attacks this year have become increasingly sophisticated, with Iranian-made and supplied drones now used in attacks on Coalition forces.
Without much concrete detail on the nature of the change, the Monday statement appears to be an attempt to shore up al-Kadhimi’s political fortunes ahead of elections planned for October. Dissatisfaction with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s stalled reform agenda has continued to brew in Iraq, with continued assassinations of youth activists by Iranian-backed forces further inflaming public fury over a spate of fires in COVID-19 intensive care units that have left dozens dead.