Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has defended the presence of United States troops in his country in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, his first since taking office in October.
The position contradicts the stance of several Iran-aligned groups that in part make up the Shia-dominated Coordination Framework, the political bloc that nominated the prime minister last year. Al-Sudani was subsequently appointed by President Abdul Latif Rashid, whose election ended more than a year of political deadlock fuelled by scholar and political leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
In the interview published on Sunday, al-Sudani did not give a timeline for US and NATO forces – who are currently serving in a training capacity – to leave Iraq, despite calls from some political allies for a full withdrawal.
“We think that we need the foreign forces,” al-Sudani said. “Elimination of ISIS needs some more time.”
The US invaded Iraq in 2003 amid its global “war on terror”, with troop numbers reaching a peak of about 170,000 soldiers in 2007 before forces were withdrawn in 2011. They were redeployed to Iraq in 2014 in response to the rise of ISIL (ISIS), as the armed group overran a large swath of territory across Iraq and Syria.
However, combat operations largely fizzled in the wake of ISIL’s territorial defeat in 2019. Two years later, Washington officially ended the US-led combat mission in Iraq and transitioned to an advisory role assisting Iraqi forces. The US currently has about 2,000 troops stationed in the country, with NATO housing several hundred troops there, all in non-combat roles.
Meanwhile, rocket attacks launched by Iran-aligned armed groups on bases housing foreign troops and other foreign installations have remained relatively frequent.
In the interview published on Sunday, al-Sudani said there was no intention to resume foreign combat operations in the country, but noted foreign forces provide important logistical support in combatting ISIL pockets in Syria.
“Inside Iraq we do not need combat forces,” he told the newspaper. “If there is a threat for Iraq, it is the penetration of the [ISIL] cells through Syria,” he said.
His statements underlined the difficult tack the prime minister has sought in his dealings with the US and with Iran, which, beyond having substantial sway in domestic Iraqi politics, is also a key provider of natural gas and electricity to the country. The prime minister hailed Iran and Iraq’s close economic and security ties during a visit to Tehran in November.
He told the Wall Street Journal that he would like Iraq to have similar relations with Washington to those enjoyed by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf oil and gas producers, adding that he planned to send a high-level delegation to Washington for talks with US officials next month in hopes of an eventual meeting with US President Joe Biden.
“I don’t see this as an impossible matter, to see Iraq have a good relationship with Iran and the US,” al-Sudani said.