Several rockets hit a military base in Erbil, northern Iraq last month, killing a foreign civilian contractor.
Iraq and the United States have agreed on the withdrawal of all remaining US and coalition combat troops deployed to fight ISIL (ISIS) in the Middle Eastern country – but they did not provide a timeline and said the foreign forces would still provide training to the Iraqi army.
After a first “strategic dialogue” under President Joe Biden’s administration, the two countries said in a joint statement on Wednesday that the Iraqi military had made substantial improvements.
“The parties confirmed that the mission of US and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq,” the statement said, adding that the timing was to be established “in upcoming technical talks”.
“The transition of US and other international forces away from combat operations to training, equipping, and assisting the ISF (Iraq Security Forces) reflects the success of their strategic partnership and ensures support to the ISF’s continued efforts to ensure ISIS can never again threaten Iraq’s stability,” the statement added.
The talks – held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic – began in June under the Trump administration. Wednesday’s round centred on a number of issues, including the presence of US troops in Iraq.
John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the statement did not represent an agreement to begin a further withdrawal of US forces.
Later on Wednesday, Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has ordered the formation of a committee that would hold technical talks with the US side to approve “mechanisms and timings” related to the redeployment.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hassan said in a statement during Wednesday’s talks that Iraq still needs US support related to training, arming and advising its military.
The announcement comes as US targets in Iraq have come under frequent rocket attacks attributed to paramilitary groups linked to Iran, which led Biden to order air raids on affiliated camps in Syria.
But Biden, in a rare point of agreement with his predecessor Donald Trump, has been looking for ways to wind down what have come to be dubbed “endless wars”.
In his final months in office, Trump had ordered a drawdown from Iraq as well as Afghanistan, with the number of US troops in each country dipping to 2,500 by January 15.
Former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, had removed all US forces from Iraq but sent troops back following the rise of ISIL.
The statement said Iraq had pledged to protect bases with US-led forces, who Washington said were present “solely in support of Iraq’s effort” in the fight against ISIL.
Calls for a complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq grew louder after the killing of Iran’s elite Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, and deputy of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in a US attack near Baghdad airport in January 2020.
Days after that incident, the Iraqi parliament voted in favour of a complete withdrawal of all foreign troops as Iran-backed armed groups vowed to avenge the killings.