- Austin, the most senior official in the Biden administration, visited Iraq
- It says the troops must be there at the invitation of the Iraqi government
- The trip comes on the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion
- Aims to support Sudan’s resilience against Iranian influence in the country – experts
BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq March 7 (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Tuesday, nearly 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and said Washington was committed to maintaining its military presence. Country.
The 2003 invasion led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and created instability that paved the way for the rise of Islamic State militants after the US withdrew its forces in 2011.
Austin, the most senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq, was the last commander of US forces there after the invasion.
“US forces are prepared to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government,” Austin told reporters after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad al-Sudani.
“The United States will continue to strengthen and expand our partnership in support of Iraq’s security, stability and sovereignty,” he said.
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Sudan later said in a statement that its government’s approach is to maintain balanced relations with regional and international governments based on shared interests and respect for sovereignty, and that “the stability of Iraq is critical to the security and stability of the region.”
The U.S. currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq — and an additional 900 in Syria — to help advise and assist local troops in the fight against Islamic State, which seized territory in both countries in 2014.
Islamic State is far from the formidable force it once was, but militant cells survive in parts of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.
Austin’s visit is also to support Sudan’s pushback against Iranian influence in the country, former officials and experts said.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq periodically target US forces and its embassy in Baghdad with rockets. In 2020, the United States and Iran came close to full-scale conflict after US forces killed the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, General Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike.
“I think Iraqi leaders share our interest in not having Iraq become a playground for conflict between the U.S. and Iran,” said a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Austin met with Nechirwan Barzani, president of the Sudanese and Iraqi Kurdistan Region, amid ongoing disputes between the national government and Erbil over budget exchanges and oil revenue sharing, as well as between the two main Kurdish parties operating in the quasi-government. Autonomous region of Kurdistan.
“Erbil and Baghdad must work together for the benefit of all Iraqis and Kurdish leaders must put aside their divisions and come together to build a secure and prosperous Iraqi Kurdish region,” Austin said following his meeting with Barzani.
Austin condemned Iran’s “repeated cross-border attacks” on Iraq.
Last year, Tehran fired missiles at bases of Kurdish groups in northern Iraq it accused of staging protests against its restrictions on women, displacing hundreds of Iranian Kurds and killing some.
Former President George W. The Bush administration cited its belief that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction to justify its decision to invade Iraq. American and Allied forces later discovered that no such stockpiles existed.
Between 185,000 and 208,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the war, according to the Cost of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
Austin, the former commander of all US forces in the Middle East, said in 2011 that the US had achieved its military objectives in Iraq.
But under former President Barack Obama, the United States sent thousands of troops back to Iraq and Syria three years later to bolster the fight against Islamic State.
Reporting by Idris Ali in Baghdad, additional reporting by Amina Ismail in Erbil; Editing by Andrew Havens, Angus MacSwan, Emilia Sithole-Madaris and Sharon Singleton
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