US President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Monday sealed an agreement formally ending the US combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, more than 18 years after US troops were sent to the country.
Coupled with Biden’s withdrawal of the last American forces in Afghanistan by the end of August, the Democratic president is completing US combat missions in the two wars that then-President George W Bush began under his watch.
Biden and Kadhimi met in the Oval Office for their first face-to-face talks as part of a strategic dialogue between the United States and Iraq.
“Our role in Iraq will be … to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS as it arises, but we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission,” Biden told reporters as he and Kadhimi met.
There are currently 2,500 US troops in Iraq focusing on countering the remnants of ISIL (ISIS). The US role in Iraq will shift entirely to training and advising the Iraqi military to defend itself.
The shift is not expected to have a major effect since the United States has already moved towards focusing on training Iraqi forces.
A US-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 based on charges that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was removed from power, but such weapons were never found.
In recent years the US mission was dominated by helping defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
“Nobody is going to declare mission accomplished. The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of Kadhimi’s visit.
The reference was reminiscent of the large “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier above where Bush gave a speech declaring major combat operations over in Iraq on May 1, 2003.
“If you look to where we were, where we had Apache helicopters in combat, when we had US special forces doing regular operations, it’s a significant evolution. So by the end of the year we think we’ll be in a good place to really formally move into an advisory and capacity-building role,” the official said.
Kadhimi is seen as friendly to the United States and has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned fighter groups. But his government condemned a US air raid against Iran-aligned fighters along its border with Syria in late June, calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
The United States plans to provide Iraq with 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine under the global COVAX vaccine-sharing programme. Biden said the doses should arrive in a couple of weeks.
The United States will also provide $5.2m to help fund a UN mission to monitor October elections in Iraq.
“We support strengthening Iraqi’s democracy and we’re anxious to make sure the election goes forward in October,” Biden said.
Meanwhile Kadhimi faces no shortage of problems. In addition to the rise in attacks against US forces in recent months, a series of devastating hospital fires left dozens of people dead and soaring coronavirus infections – adding fresh layers of frustration for the nation.
For Kadhimi, the ability to offer the Iraqi public a date for the end of the US combat presence could be a feather in his cap before the election.