The top US commander for the Middle East said on Thursday that the US will keep the current 2,500 troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future, but warned that he expects increased attacks on US and Iraqi personnel by Iranian-backed militias eager to see American forces leave.
Despite the shift by US forces to a non-combat role in Iraq, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie said in an interview with The Associated Press at the Pentagon that they will continue to provide air support and other military aid to Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State.
He noted that Iranian-backed militias want all Western forces out of Iraq, and he predicted that the current uptick in violence would last until December.
“They actually want all US forces to leave, and all US forces are not going to leave,” he said, adding that “as we get closer to the end of the month, that may provoke a response.”
The Iraqi government announced earlier Thursday that talks on ending the US combat mission against ISIS had come to a close. Because US forces have largely served as advisors for some time, the announced transition makes little difference. The announcement follows the Biden administration’s decision in July to end the US combat mission in Iraq by December 31.
“We’ve reduced the number of bases we don’t need, making it more difficult to attack us.” The Iraqis, on the other hand, want us to stay. “They still want to be there, they still want to be engaged,” McKenzie said. “So long as they want it, and we can both agree that that’s the case, we’ll be there.”
He believes that Islamic State militants will continue to pose a threat in Iraq and that the group will “keep reinventing itself, perhaps under a new name.” The key, he said, will be to prevent IS from coalescing with other elements around the world and becoming more powerful and dangerous.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it had more than 170,000 troops fighting insurgents and later training and advising Iraqi forces. All US troops were withdrawn from Iraq at the end of 2011, but just three years later, they were back to help the Iraqi government fight the Islamic State, which had crossed the border from Syria and taken control of a large swath of the country.
The United States’ presence in Iraq has long been a source of contention for Iran, but tensions reached new heights in January 2020 when a top Iranian general was killed in a drone strike near Baghdad’s airport. Iran fired a barrage of missiles at the al-Asad airbase, where US troops were stationed, in retaliation. The blasts resulted in more than 100 service members suffering traumatic brain injuries.
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More recently, Iranian proxies are suspected of carrying out an assassination attempt on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi last month. Officials have also stated that they believe Iran was behind the October drone attack on an American military outpost in southern Syria. The attack did not result in any deaths or injuries among US personnel.
“I believe an assassination attempt on the prime minister is a significant event,” McKenzie said. “I believe that’s a sign of the desperation they’re experiencing right now.”
McKenzie, who has been in charge of US Central Command for nearly three years and has traveled extensively throughout the region, painted a picture that reflected the recent turmoil in Afghanistan, where US troops left at the end of August.
In Afghanistan, McKenzie said the al-Qaida extremist group has grown slightly since US forces left, and the ruling Taliban leaders are split over their pledge to cut ties with the group by 2020. He claimed that the withdrawal of US military and intelligence assets from Afghanistan has made it “very difficult, if not impossible,” to ensure that neither al-Qaida nor the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate can pose a threat to the US.
Iran and its proxies have fought to get the United States out of Iraq and the wider Middle East, similar to the Taliban’s long campaign to get Americans out of Afghanistan.
“Iran’s vision of ejecting us is still alive and well,” he said. “And they see Iraq as the primary battleground for that.” And I believe they believe they can inflame the situation in Iraq to the point where we will leave.”
Iran, he said, believes the campaign will have no impact on the nuclear talks, which have been stalled for a long time but are now resuming. “I believe it is a dangerous position for the Iranians to maintain,” he said, “because I believe they will not be able to decouple those two things.”
According to McKenzie, the US will refine its force in Iraq as NATO expands its presence as planned. Furthermore, the total number of US troops on the ground in Iraq will be determined by future agreements with the Iraqi government.
According to McKenzie, US troops in Syria, which currently number around 900, will continue to advise and assist Syrian rebel forces in their fight against IS. “I think we are measurably closer than we were a couple of years ago,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know how much longer that will be necessary. “I still believe we have a long way to go.”
More broadly, McKenzie noted that the number of US troops in the Middle East has decreased significantly since last year when it peaked at 80,000 amid tensions with Iran. China and Russia have been identified as the top national security threats, with China being dubbed America’s “pacing challenge,” and the US has sought to concentrate more effort and assets in the Pacific.
The Pentagon said little about removing or repositioning troops in the Middle East in its recent review of US forces around the world. McKenzie and other senior military leaders have long expressed concern that the US military is concentrated in too few locations in the Middle East and that it needs to disperse more to improve security.
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“We believe it is critical to work with our regional partners to present Iran with a more complex targeting problem,” he said, adding that the US will consider other bases and troop movements to achieve that goal.
Iran’s development of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as armed drones, is particularly concerning to McKenzie.
“So those things are very concerning to me,” he said, “because they continue to develop.” “And they show no signs of slowing down in this field’s research or in the development of new, more lethal and capable weapons.”