The US will withdraw more than 2,000 US troops from Iraq this month, furthering President Donald Trump’s long-held ambition to bring back US forces amid deep insecurity faced by American soldiers in Iraq.
General Frank McKenzie, commander of the Centcom region in the Middle East and Afghanistan, said on Wednesday the US had decided to reduce its troop presence from 5,200 to 3,000 troops this month.
“This decision is due to our confidence in the Iraqi security forces’ increased ability to operate independently,” he said at a change-of-command ceremony.
“The US decision is a clear demonstration of our continued commitment to the ultimate goal, which is an Iraqi security force that is capable of preventing an Isis resurgence and of securing Iraq’s sovereignty without external assistance.”
Gen McKenzie said the reduced footprint would allow the US to continue its support to Iraqi forces to root out “the final remnants of Isis in Iraq”.
The decision also reflects deep insecurity faced by US forces stationed at bases in Iraq, which have come under regular fire from Iran-backed militias this year in the wake of Mr Trump’s decision to kill top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani at the start of the year.
Iraqi lawmakers voted for the withdrawal of US troops following the strike against Soleimani, which also killed a top Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. US military commanders redeployed some US troops from smaller bases that were difficult to protect in March, following a series of rocket attacks blamed on Iran-backed militias, some of which were fatal.
Mr Trump upset Iraqi leaders in early 2019, when he hinted that America wanted to retain its footprint in Iraq “to be looking a little bit at Iran”, against which his administration has run an intense economic and diplomatic pressure campaign.
But the US has been steadily handing control of military bases to Iraqi security forces this year, as the international anti-Isis mission has shrunk. Many partner countries pulled out their troops over coronavirus concerns this year. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, announced a strategic review in April.
“We are withdrawing from Iraq and losing focus from Isis partially because we’re under fire from Iranian-backed militia,” said Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition against Isis who resigned at the end of 2018. “That was not happening at all until the end of last year. There were no Iranian-backed attacks on US forces from the time we went back in 2014 through late 2018.”
Mr Trump is seeking to reduce the US troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as he faces a battle for re-election in November, and his attitude to the military has recently become a matter of intense focus.
In 2016, he campaigned on a promise to end the US involvement in “endless foreign wars” and on Monday, he accused the Pentagon of wanting to “do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy”.
General James McConville, chief of staff of the army, on Tuesday rejected any suggestion military commanders were influenced by defence companies.
“I can assure the American people that the senior leaders would only recommend sending our troops to combat when it’s required in national security and the last resort.”
The Atlantic reported last week that Mr Trump had privately referred to veterans as “losers” and “suckers”, prompting attacks from his opponent, Joe Biden.
Mr Trump claimed on Monday that soldiers were “in love with me”. A Military Times poll of more than 1,000 active-duty troops showed 38 per cent had a favourable view of Mr Trump, down from 46 per cent at the start of his presidency.
Additional reporting by Chloe Cornish in Beirut