WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Monday the U.S. military’s combat mission in Iraq will conclude by the end of the year, setting out a more precise timeline for American forces to formally step back in their fight against the Islamic State organization in Iraq.
The plan to shift the American military mission to a strictly advisory and training one by year’s end — with no U.S. troops in a combat role — will be spelled out in a broader communique to be issued by U.S. and Iraq following Biden’s White House meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Monday afternoon. That’s according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the still-unannounced plan.
“We’re not going to be by the end of the year in a combat mission,” said Biden, who noted U.S. forces will remain in the country to train and assist Iraqi forces as needed.
“Our shared fight against ISIS is critical for the stability of the region and our counterterrorism cooperation will continue even as we shift to this new phase that we’re going to be talking about,” Biden added.
The U.S. troop presence has stood at about 2,500 since late last year when then-President Donald Trump ordered a reduction from 3,000. Biden did not say how many U.S. troops would remain in Iraq when the combat mission is formally completed. The troop reduction may not be substantial because of the continuing advisory and training mission.
The plan to end the U.S. combat mission in Iraq follows Biden’s decision to withdraw fully from Afghanistan nearly 20 years after President George W. Bush launched that war in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Less than two years later, Bush started the war in Iraq. Biden has vowed to continue counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East but shift more attention to China as a long-term security challenge.
The senior administration official said Iraqi security forces are “battle tested” and have proved themselves “capable” of protecting their country. Still, the Biden administration recognizes that IS remains a considerable threat, the official said.
Indeed, the organization is a shell of its former self since it was largely routed on the battlefield in 2017. Still, it has shown it can carry out high-casualty attacks. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens in a busy suburban Baghdad market.
The U.S. and Iraq agreed in April that the U.S. transition to a train-and-advise mission meant the U.S. combat role would end, but they didn’t settle on a timetable for completing that transition. The impending announcement comes less than three months before parliamentary elections slated for Oct. 10.
“America has helped Iraq,” al-Kadhimi said. “Together we fight and defeat” the Islamic State.
Al-Kadhimi faces no shortage of problems. Iranian-backed militias operating inside Iraq have stepped up attacks against U.S. forces in recent months, and a series of devastating hospital fires that left dozens of people dead and soaring coronavirus infections have added fresh layers of frustration for the nation.
For al-Kadhimi, the ability to offer the Iraqi public a date for the end of the U.S. combat presence could be a feather in his cap before the election.
Biden administration officials say al-Kadhimi also deserves credit for improving Iraq’s standing in the Mideast.
Last month, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited Baghdad for joint meetings — the first time an Egyptian president has made an official visit since the 1990s, when ties were severed after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
In March, Pope Francis made an historic visit to Iraq, praying among ruined churches in Mosul, a former IS stronghold, and meeting the influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf.
The U.S. and Iraq had been widely expected to use Monday’s face-to-face meeting to announce plans for the end of the combat mission, and al-Kadhimi before his trip to Washington made clear that he believes it’s time for the U.S. to wind that mission down.
“There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil,” al-Kadhimi told The Associated Press.
The U.S. mission of training and advising Iraqi forces has its most recent origins in President Barack Obama’s decision in 2014 to send troops back to Iraq. The move was made in response to the Islamic State group’s takeover of large portions of western and northern Iraq and a collapse of Iraqi security forces that appeared to threaten Baghdad. Obama had fully withdrawn U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after the U.S. invasion.
The distinction between combat troops and those involved in training and advising can be blurry, given that the U.S. troops are under threat of attack. But it is clear that U.S. ground forces have not been on the offensive in Iraq in years, other than largely unpublicized special operations missions aimed at Islamic State group militants.
Pentagon officials for years have tried to balance what they see as a necessary military presence to support the Iraqi government’s fight against IS with domestic political sensitivities in Iraq to a foreign troop presence. A major complication for both sides is the periodic attacks on bases housing U.S. and coalition troops by Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran.
The vulnerability of U.S. troops was demonstrated most dramatically in January 2020 when Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on al-Asad air base in western Iraq. No Americans were killed, but dozens suffered traumatic brain injury from the blasts. That attack came shortly after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian military commander Qassim Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad International Airport.
Monday’s communique was also expected to detail U.S. efforts to assist the Iraqi government’s COVID-19 response, education system and energy sector.
Story by Aamer Madhani, Robert Burns and Qassim Abdul-zahra. Associated Press writer Samya Kullab contributed to this report.