The United States and Iraq have agreed to start talks on the future of the US-led military coalition in Iraq with the aim of setting a timetable for a phased withdrawal of troops and the coalition’s end, both governments have announced.
The US has had a continuous presence in Iraq since its 2003 invasion.
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US combat forces left in 2011, but thousands of troops returned in 2014 to help the Iraqi government defeat ISIL (ISIS).
In the years since, the presence of US forces, who have remained there to conduct counter-ISIL missions and training, has been a lightning rod for an increasingly influential faction of Iran-aligned militias and politicians in Iraq.
Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement on Thursday said Baghdad aims to “formulate a specific and clear timetable that specifies the duration of the presence of international coalition advisors in Iraq” and to “initiate the gradual and deliberate reduction of its advisors on Iraqi soil”, eventually leading to the end of the coalition mission.
It added that Iraq is committed to ensuring the “safety of the international coalition’s advisors during the negotiation period in all parts of the country” and to “maintaining stability and preventing escalation”.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the discussions will take place as part of a higher military commission that was agreed upon in August 2023 – before the outbreak of Israel’s war on Gaza on October 7 rocked the region – and will discuss the “transition to an enduring bilateral security partnership between Iraq and the United States”.
Iraq’s government says ISIL is defeated and the coalition’s job is over, but it is keen to explore establishing bilateral relations with coalition members, including military cooperation in training and equipment.
Iraq also says the coalition’s presence has become a magnet for instability amid near-daily attacks by Iran-backed armed groups on bases housing the forces and US retaliatory strikes, escalating since the Israeli war in Gaza started.
US and Iraqi officials say the process is expected to take many months if not longer, with the outcome unclear and no withdrawal of US forces imminent.
Washington fears that a fast withdrawal may create a security vacuum that could be filled by archrival Iran or ISIL, which maintains sleeper cells in desert areas and has continued low-level attacks despite holding no territory.