September 09, 2020

U.S. to Cut Its Force in Iraq to About 3,000 Troops, Commander Says

Reduction from around 5,200 comes as Iraqi security forces improve, U.S. general says

The Trump administration will cut the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to about 3,000 this month, a top military commander said in the country on Wednesday, a reduction from about 5,200 there now.

The move is part of President Trump’s effort to reduce the American military footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan before Election Day on Nov. 3, officials have said. The top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. Frank McKenzie, said improvements in Iraq’s security forces allowed the U.S. to downsize.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the U.S. was planning to withdraw about a third of its force from Iraq. The cut announced by Gen. McKenzie represents more than a third of the U.S. force and is one of the steepest such cuts since President Obama withdrew forces from Iraq, leaving about 1,000 U.S. personnel, in 2011.

“In recognition of the great progress the Iraqi forces have made and in consultation and coordination with the government of Iraq and our coalition partners, the United States has decided to reduce our troop presence in Iraq from about 5,200 to 3,000 troops during the month of September,” Gen. McKenzie said.

“This reduced footprint allows us to continue advising and assisting our Iraqi partners in rooting out the final remnants of [Islamic State] in Iraq and ensuring its enduring defeat,” he said.

Mr. Trump has also said he plans to pull thousands of U.S. troops from Germany, Syria and Afghanistan, and officials have signaled a further drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, where the war is in its 19th year.

The first direct negotiations between the insurgent Taliban movement and the Afghan government were scheduled to begin this week in Qatar but face possible delays amid divisions within both negotiating teams and a shakeup in the Taliban delegation’s leadership.

The U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan is scheduled to occur on a parallel track with the talks. Mr. Trump and the Pentagon have indicated that the U.S. force of about 8,400 would be cut to about 4,300 in the fall.

The troop numbers announced Wednesday by Gen. McKenzie don’t spell out other U.S. military capabilities, like drones and air power, or the number of civilian contractors and State Department employees who will remain in Iraq, said Tony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

The Pentagon declined to say what other capabilities will remain in Iraq.

Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) called the Iraq troop cut the right move. “It’s time to end this war,” he said. Rep. Seth Moulton (D., Mass.), said the administration hasn’t adequately planned for a withdrawal. “We cannot repeat the mistake of pulling out too quickly and having to send troops back in, refighting battles we had already won, at the cost of more American lives,” said Mr. Moulton, a former Marine Corps captain and Iraq war veteran.

Gen. McKenzie said that the U.S. has confidence that Iraq’s security forces are capable of preventing a resurgence of Islamic State in the country.

“The journey has been difficult, the sacrifice has been great, but the progress has been significant,” he said.

Islamic State isn’t yet completely defeated, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S.-led task force that has been fighting the militants in Iraq and Syria.

That task force said that in June, the U.S.-led coalition carried out 20 airstrikes in Iraq, which killed 30 Islamic State militants, destroyed 10 caves and blew up three camps, among other targets. Six airstrikes were carried out that month against the militants in neighboring Syria.

The U.S. also has about 900 troops in eastern Syria and at the al-Tanf garrison near Syria’s southern border with Iraq and Jordan, officials said. Those troops continue to advise the Syrian Democratic Forces who are fighting remnants of the Islamic State force there, and ensure that oil fields in eastern Syria don’t fall into the hands of forces allied with Russia, the Assad regime or Iran.

After Mr. Trump partially withdrew U.S. troops from northeast Syria last year, Russia attempted to move into the void. In recent months, Russian forces increasingly have encroached on areas where U.S. troops have remained and run-ins between American and Russian patrols in northeast Syria are more frequent.

In addition to U.S. troops, there are about 900 other foreign troops in Iraq, U.S. officials said last month. Those international troops are expected to stay to help with training Iraqi forces and could grow to as many as 2,500.

Iraqi military spokesman Tahsin al-Khafaji said the drawdown was in keeping with the timetable agreed upon between Baghdad and Washington.

Hisham Dawood, an adviser to Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, said the announcement showed the premier’s commitment to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, though training and logistical support from the international community might still be necessary.

When Mr. Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief, visited Washington last month, Iraqi and U.S. officials were careful not to set a deadline for the complete departure of American troops from the country.

“We definitely don’t need combat troops in Iraq,” Mr. Kadhimi said after meeting with Mr. Trump. “But we do need training and capacity enhancement and security cooperation.”

Iran-backed militias remain skeptical about the U.S. drawdown and have redoubled attacks targeting U.S. interests in Iraq in recent weeks.

Mohammed Mohyee, a spokesman for the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, dismissed the announcement as a ruse to boost President Trump’s chances of re-election by enabling him to make good on a pledge to disentangle the U.S. from costly conflicts abroad. The U.S. has often blamed the group for attacks targeting its forces.

Iran and its allies vowed to expel American troops from Iraq, putting pressure on the government, after the U.S. killed a top Iranian general in a drone strike in Baghdad in January.

Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of a clandestine wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for military operations abroad, was targeted after a spate of attacks by Iran-backed militias against U.S. interests in Iraq last year.

By:  Gordon Lubold and Isabel Coles
Source: Wall Street Journal