Biden and Iraqi leader discuss “new phase” of U.S. mission

Washington — President Biden said Monday that the U.S will not have a combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. 

Mr. Biden said the role of U.S. forces in Iraq will transition to one of advising and assisting the Iraqis in their fight against ISIS. 

“We’re also committed to our security cooperation — our shared fight against ISIS is critical for the stability of the region and our counterterrorism mission will continue even as we shift to this new phase we’re going to talk about,” Mr. Biden said. 

There are currently about 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. It is not clear how many will remain after the transition at the end of the year. 

The comments came at the start of the president’s meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House on Monday for the final round of talks between the two countries. 

Iraqi officials traveled to the U.S. for this iteration of the U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue, which has included talks at the Pentagon and the State Department, and culminates with the meeting at the White House. 

Before heading to the U.S., al-Kadhimi told the Associated Press in an interview that “there is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil.”

The troops in Iraq have largely already transitioned to “advise and assist” roles. The Pentagon last week did not disclose how many of the 2,500 are combat troops.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Saturday the U.S. is in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government to “help train, advise and equip them to do things such as countering ISIS” and the U.S. doesn’t want to see ISIS redevelop.

Mr. Biden’s meeting with al-Kadhimi is their first in person, though the two leaders have spoken by phone. The White House visit follows meetings between senior U.S. and Iraqi officials held over the weekend at the State Department and Pentagon, during which a broad range of issues, from commerce, education and trade to the military and security in Iraq, were discussed.

A senior Biden administration official told reporters Friday that across this latest round of talks, U.S. and Iraqi officials have discussed “shifting to a new phase in the campaign,” in which the U.S. completes the combat mission against ISIS and moves to an “advisory and training mission” by the end of 2021.

The official said that a communique, to be released following Mr. Biden’s meeting with al-Kadhimi, is expected to make clear that “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.

“It is a significant evolution in the mission,” the official said. 

The U.S. dropped down from 5,200 to about 2,500 troops in January 2021. The official would not reveal how many U.S. forces will remain in Iraq or what their capabilities are, but predicted that by the end of the year, the U.S. will be in a position to move into an “advisory and capacity-building role.”

The U.S. has been involved in Iraq for much of the period between 2003 and now. The U.S. officially withdrew in 2011 but reengaged in 2014 to counter the rise of ISIS.

According to Pentagon statistics, more than 4,500 troops have died in support of operations in Iraq and more than 32,000 have been wounded.