WASHINGTON – Six months after deadly US airstrike in Baghdad enraged Iraqis and fueled demands to send all US troops home, US senior general for the Middle East speaks optimistically about maintaining a smaller military presence but sustainable there.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, Commander of the United States Central Command, met with the new Iraqi Prime Minister on Tuesday, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and later said he believed the Iraqis welcomed US and coalition troops, especially in the ongoing struggle to prevent Islamic State militants from taking the country again.
“I think in the future they will want us to be with them,” McKenzie told a small group of reporters, speaking by phone hours after leaving Iraq. “I don’t feel like there’s a mood right now for us to rush off. And I’m pretty confident of that.”
Tensions rose between the US and Iraq in January after US drone strike near Baghdad airport killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Angry Iraqi lawmakers, spurred on by Shia political factions, pass non-binding resolution oust all forces from the US-led coalition from the country.
In response to Soleimani’s assassination, Iran launched a massive ballistic missile attack on Iraq’s al-Asad air base on January 8, which left more than 100 US soldiers with traumatic brain injuries. Two months later, US fighter jets struck five sites in retaliation, targeting members of Iran-backed Shiite militias suspected of being responsible for the January rocket attack.
President Donald Trump has vowed to bring troops home and stop what he calls America’s endless wars. But he also warned Iran to expect a bold American response if Iranian-backed militias attack the Americans in Iraq.
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, but troops left in 2011. American forces returned to Iraq in 2014, after the Islamic State group began to take control of large swathes of the country,
McKenzie last visited Iraq in early February, slipping into the country for a few hours to meet with the leadership as anti-American sentiment soared and violent protests and rocket attacks hit the country. American Embassy.
Relations have improved, however, since al-Kadhimi took power in May. And while some groups, such as the Iranian-backed Fatah parliamentary bloc, continue to call for the withdrawal of US forces, a dialogue is emerging between the US and Iraq on future relations between the two nations.
McKenzie said the United States recognizes that al-Kadhimi is in a difficult position as he tries to deal with all factions in government and maintain relations with the United States and Iran.
The United States has criticized the Iraqi government for its inability to subdue the Iranian-backed militia groups it claims are orchestrating the attacks. And al-Kadhimi pledged to protect US troops and facilities from attack.
“I think he’s negotiating a land mine now. I think we need to help him,” McKenzie said. “He’s in a very difficult position.
McKenzie said he hoped the US-Iraq meeting scheduled for this month was face-to-face, but knew the coronavirus pandemic could affect that. The talks are expected to span the gamut of their bilateral relations, with Washington prioritizing future force levels in Iraq and ongoing militia attacks, and Baghdad focusing more on its severe economic crisis.
“Certainly we need a foreign presence in Iraq,” McKenzie said. “I don’t know if it has to be as important as it is today, because at the end of the day it will be a political decision and not a military one. But I think the Iraqis know, welcome and appreciate what we are doing for them. now. “
There are between 5,000 and 6,000 American troops in Iraq.
McKenzie wouldn’t say how many American soldiers could stay. But he said conventional Iraqi forces are now operating alone. U.S. and coalition forces continue to conduct training and counterterrorism operations, including with Iraqi commandos. Any final decision, he said, would be coordinated with the Iraqi government.
He said that as Iraqi troops became more proficient, fewer coalition forces would be needed.