US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has made an unannounced trip to Iraq, during which he said the United States is committed to keeping its military presence in the country and continuing the fight against ISIL (ISIS).
The Pentagon chief’s trip to Baghdad on Tuesday came just before the 20-year anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, toppled leader Saddam Hussein and helped unleash forces that paved the way for the rise of ISIL.
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The US withdrew its forces in 2011, but the administration of former President Barack Obama sent thousands of soldiers back into Iraq and neighbouring Syria three years later to bolster the fight against ISIL.
Currently, the US has 2,500 soldiers in Iraq and 900 in Syria to help advise and assist local forces in combating ISIL, which in 2014 seized swathes of territory in both countries.
Despite their territorial defeat in Iraq in late 2017, ISIL fighters are still launching attacks in the country as well as in Syria. ISIL attacks have killed and wounded dozens of Iraqi soldiers in recent months.
“We are focused on the mission of defeating Daesh [ISIL], and we are here for no other purpose,” Austin said. “Any threats or attacks on our forces only undermine that mission,” he added, apparently referring to Iran-backed fighters who have been blamed for attacks on facilities housing US troops in Iraq.
Austin, the most senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq in recent years, was the last commanding general of US forces there after the invasion.
“US forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq,” Austin told reporters after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani and Defence Minister Thabet Muhammad Al-Abbasi.
He said these forces are operating in a non-combat and advisory role in support of the “Iraqi-led fight against terrorism”.
“The United States will continue to strengthen and broaden our partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability and sovereignty,” he said.
Al-Sudani’s office, meanwhile, said he and Austin discussed cooperation between their countries in the fight against ISIL.
The prime minister reaffirmed his government’s “keenness to strengthen and consolidate relations with the United States of America at various levels and fields”, it said.