BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, on an unannounced trip to Iraq on Tuesday, nearly 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, said Washington was committed to maintaining its military presence in the country.
The 2003 invasion killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and created instability that eventually paved the way for the rise of Islamic State militants after the United States withdrew its forces in 2011.
Austin, the most senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq, was the last commander of US forces there after the invasion.
Austin told reporters after his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad al-Sudani that “the American forces are ready to stay in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government.”
“The United States will continue to strengthen and expand our partnership to support Iraq’s security, stability and sovereignty,” he said.
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The United States currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq — and an additional 900 troops in Syria — to help advise and assist local forces in fighting the Islamic State, which in 2014 seized swathes of territory in both countries.
The Islamic State is far from the formidable force it once was, but militant cells have survived in parts of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.
Former officials and experts said the trip was also about supporting Sudani’s pushback against Iranian influence in the country.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have occasionally targeted US forces and their embassy in Baghdad with missiles. The United States and Iran came close to all-out conflict in 2020 after American forces killed the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, General Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike.
“I think Iraqi leaders share our interest in Iraq not becoming an arena of conflict between the United States and Iran,” said a senior US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Austin met with Al-Sudani as well as the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, amid a long-running dispute over budget transfers and sharing of oil revenues between the national government and the Kurdish government.
The administration of former President George W. Bush cited its belief that the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction to justify the decision to invade Iraq. The United States and allied forces later discovered that such stocks did not exist.
Between 185,000 and 208,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the war, according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
Austin, the former commander of all US forces in the Middle East, said in 2011 that the US had achieved its military objectives in Iraq.
But under former President Barack Obama, the United States sent thousands of troops to Iraq and Syria after three years to bolster the fight against the Islamic State group.
(Covering by Idris Ali in Baghdad). Editing by Andrew Heavens and Angus McSwan
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