U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Tuesday in a visit an official said was aimed at showing that Washington was committed to keeping its military presence there nearly 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
The 2003 invasion killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and led to instability that eventually paved the way for the rise of Islamic State militants after the U.S. withdrew its forces in 2011.
Austin, the most senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq, was the last commanding general of U.S. forces there after the invasion.
“I’m here to reaffirm the U.S.-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable, and sovereign Iraq,” Austin said.
The United States currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq – and an additional 900 in Syria – to help advise and assist local troops in combating Islamic State militants, who had seized large swathes of territory in 2014 in both countries.
“What (Iraqis) will hear from him is commitment to retaining our force presence, but it’s not just about the military instrument. The United States is broadly interested in a strategic partnership with the government of Iraq,” the senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters.
Islamic State is far from the formidable force it once was, but militant cells often operating independently have survived across parts of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.
The trip is just as much about supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani’s push back against Iranian influence in the country.
Iranian-backed militia in Iraq have occasionally targeted U.S. forces and its embassy in Baghdad with rockets. The United States and Iran came close to full-blown conflict in 2020 after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ top commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a drone strike.
“I think that Iraqi leaders share our interest in Iraq not becoming a playground for conflict between the United States and Iran,” the defense official added.
Austin will meet Sudani as well as President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, amid a long-running dispute over budget transfers and oil revenue sharing between the national government and Kurdish government.