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Washington — US President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Monday sealed an agreement formally ending the US combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, more than 18 years after US troops were sent to the country.
Coupled with Biden’s withdrawal of the last American forces in Afghanistan by the end of August, the Democratic president is completing US combat missions in the two wars that then-President George W Bush began under his watch.
Biden and Kadhimi met in the Oval Office for their first face-to-face talks as part of a strategic dialogue between the US and Iraq.
“Our role in Iraq will be ... to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with IS [Islamic State] as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission,” Biden told reporters as he and Kadhimi met.
There are 2,500 US troops in Iraq focusing on countering the remnants of IS. The US role in Iraq will shift entirely to training and advising the Iraqi military to defend itself.
The shift is not expected to have a major impact since the US has already moved towards focusing on training Iraqi forces.
A US-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 based on charges that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was ousted from power, but such weapons were never found.
In recent years the US mission was dominated by helping defeat IS militants in Iraq and Syria.
“Nobody is going to declare mission accomplished. The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of Kadhimi's visit.
The reference was reminiscent of the large “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier above where Bush gave a speech declaring major combat operations over in Iraq on May 1 2003.
“If you look to where we were, where we had Apache helicopters in combat, when we had US special forces doing regular operations, it's a significant evolution. So by the end of the year we think we'll be in a good place to really formally move into an advisory and capacity-building role,” the official said.
US diplomats and troops in Iraq and Syria were targeted in three rocket and drone attacks earlier this month. Analysts believed the attacks were part of a campaign by Iranian-backed militias.
The senior administration official would not say how many US troops would remain on the ground in Iraq for advising and training.
Kadhimi is seen as friendly to the US and has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militias. But his government condemned a US air raid against Iran-aligned fighters along its border with Syria in late June, calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
The US-Iraqi statement is expected to detail a number of non-military agreements related to health, energy and other matters.
The US plans to provide Iraq with 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine under the global Covax vaccine-sharing programme. Biden said the doses should arrive in a couple of weeks.
The US will also provide $5.2m to help fund a UN mission to monitor October elections in Iraq.
“We're looking forward to seeing an election in October,” said Biden.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.