The United States will be ending its combat mission in Iraq under an agreement that will be formally announced at the White House on Monday afternoon.
The plan was foreshadowed by a “senior administration official” in a call with reporters on Friday, according to a transcript of the call released by the White House on Monday. The information was shared on the condition it not be released until Monday, when Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi will visit President Joe Biden at the White House.
The official would not get into specifics about how many troops will remain when combat forces leave but said about 2,500 personnel are currently based in Iraq. The official framed the departure as part of an evolution of the U.S. presence there.
The United States will enter a “new phase in the campaign in which we very much complete the combat mission against ISIS and shift to an advisory and training mission by the end of the year,” the official said.
“As this evolution continues, and as we formally end the combat mission and make clear that there are no American forces with a combat role in the country, Iraq has requested, and we very much agree, that they need continued training; support with logistics, intelligence, advisory capacity building — all of which will continue,” the official said.
The official noted that the Islamic State group has not yet been fully vanquished in Iraq.
“ISIS remains a threat. And we saw a bombing in Baghdad just this week — the first one in some time, which, I think, just, kind of — just reinforces the need that we both understand and recognize that Iraq continues to need support in this kind of advisory training/capacity-building sense. And that’s something that will continue,” the official said.
Ten years ago, former President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq. The Obama administration, during which Biden was vice president, sent troops back to Iraq three years later after the rise of the Islamic State group had destabilized the country.
The official said Biden does not plan to repeat history.
“We’re committed to making sure, as we always said from the beginning, nobody is going to declare ‘mission accomplished,'” the official said.
“The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS. We recognize you have to keep pressure on these networks as they seek to reconstitute, but the role for U.S. forces and coalition forces can very much recede, you know, deep into the background where we are training, advising, sharing intelligence, helping with logistics. And that’s about where we are now,” the official said.
The official said about 250,000 troops have been trained by the United States.
“They are, you know, battle-tested. They have proven very capable in protecting their country,” the official said.
Despite that rosy perspective, The New York Times reported the step comes as the Biden administration “is grappling with how to operate in a country that since the U.S. invasion 18 years ago has fallen increasingly under the grip of Iranian-backed militias and a corrupt political system that has brought Iraq’s government institutions to the brink of collapse.”
One of the Iran-backed militias said it does not see any real change taking place.
“Changing their name from combat forces to trainers and advisers — we consider it as an attempt at deception,” said Mohammad al-Rubai’e, a spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a militia group with members in Iraq’s legislature.
One commentator said the agreement papers over vast differences.
“The dialogue with the United States is how can we think about maintaining a presence that is useful without incurring a high political cost,” Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the progressive Century Foundation think tank, said during a visit to Iraq this week.
“The interests of the two sides don’t really align because the United States isn’t going to see it in its interests to continue to be attacked by these militias that the government of Iraq can’t curtail,” Cambanis said.
Another expert said America can only reach so far into Iraqi society.
“Within Iraq, ISIS is defeated as a significant military threat but its radical ideology lives on,” said Mark Kimmitt, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general. “Deradicalization, however, is not part of the U.S. mission.”
And some have very low expectations for the future.
“We are now talking about repairing damage from the ex-regime, al-Qaida, ISIS and the damage induced by the ruling political class,” Luay al-Khatteeb, a former electricity minister in Iraq, told the Times.
“If this chaos continues it will lead to the destruction of the country.”
Biden is also pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, a departure that is scheduled to be completed by Aug. 31.
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