By Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns | Associated Press
WASHINGTON – The U.S. commander in the Middle East said Thursday that the United States will keep 2,500 troops in Iraq in the near future, and warned that it expects Iranian-backed forces to step up attacks on U.S. and Iraqi personnel. American forces withdrew.
In an interview with The Associated Press at the Pentagon, Navy Gen. Frank Mackenzie said that despite U.S. forces taking on a non-combat role in Iraq, they will provide air support and other military assistance to help Iraq fight Islamic State.
He said the Iranian-backed militants wanted all Western forces to withdraw from Iraq, adding that the violence could continue until December.
“They actually want all U.S. forces to leave, and not all U.S. forces want to leave,” he said, and as a result, “this could lead to a response by the end of the month.”
The Iraqi government announced on Thursday that talks on ending the U.S. combat mission against ISIS have ended. U.S. forces have been in an advisory role for some time, so the announced transition process will change very little. The announcement reflects the Biden administration’s decision in July to end the US combat mission in Iraq by December 31.
“We came down from bases we didn’t need, it made it harder for us to occupy. But Iraqis want us to be there anyway. They still want to get involved, they still want to get engaged, ”Mackenzie said. “So if they want it and we can come to an agreement, so be it – we’ll be there.”
He said Islamic State militants would continue to be a threat in Iraq and that the group would “probably continue to re-establish itself under a different name.” The key, he said, would be to ensure that ISIS could not unite with other elements around the world and become increasingly powerful and dangerous.
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, and at its peak, more than 170,000 troops fought insurgents in the country, then worked to train and advise Iraqi forces. In late 2011, all U.S. forces withdrew, but three years later, U.S. troops returned to Iraq to cross the Syrian border to help defeat the Islamic State group to take control of much of the country. .
The U.S. presence in Iraq has long been a bright spot for Tehran, but tensions escalated in January 2020 after a senior U.S. general was killed in a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad airport. In response, Iran fired a missile at al-Assad air base, where US troops are stationed. As a result of the explosions, more than 100 servicemen received brain injuries.
Iran’s proxies have recently been blamed for the assassination of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi last month. Officials say they believe Iran was behind a drone strike on a U.S. military base in southern Syria in October. No U.S. personnel were killed or injured in the attack.
“I think the attack to assassinate the prime minister is a very important event,” Mackenzie said. “I think it’s a sign of the despair they’re having right now.” Iranian officials said Tehran and its allies had nothing to do with the Iraqi prime minister’s lightly wounded drone strike last month.
Mackenzie, who led U.S. Central Command for nearly three years and traveled extensively throughout the region, drew a picture depicting the recent uprising in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops left in late August.
Mackenzie on Afghanistan said the al-Qaeda extremist group had grown slightly since the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and that ruling Taliban leaders agreed on promises to cut ties with the group by 2020. He said it was “very difficult” to ensure that the withdrawal of U.S. military and intelligence equipment from the country would not pose a threat to either the United States or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. it’s not impossible. “
Like the Taliban’s long campaign to drive Americans out of Afghanistan, Iran and its envoys fought to drive the United States out of Iraq and the wider Middle East.
“Iran still intends to expel us,” he said. “And they see the main battleground in Iraq. I believe they think they can increase the friction in Iraq where we leave off.
He said he believes the Iranian campaign will not affect long-delayed but now resuming nuclear talks. But, he said, “I think it’s maintaining a dangerous position for Iranians because I don’t think they can tell the difference between the two.”
Mackenzie said the United States will strengthen its forces there as NATO begins to expand its presence in Iraq as planned. And the total number of U.S. forces will depend on future agreements with the Iraqi government.
The number of U.S. troops in Syria is close to 900, and will continue to advise and assist Syrian rebel forces in the fight against ISIS, Mackenzie said. He said it wasn’t clear how long it would take, but he said: “I think we’re much closer than we were a few years ago. I think we still have a long way to go.”
In a broader sense, Mackenzie noted that U.S. military presence in the Middle East has dropped significantly since reaching its peak last year during the conflict with Iran, reaching 80,000. The United States has identified China and Russia as major threats to national security, calling China America’s “urgent problem” and seeking to focus more power and assets on the Pacific.
In a recent review of the deployment of U.S. forces around the world, the Pentagon said little about withdrawing or relocating troops from the Middle East. Mackenzie and other top military leaders have long been concerned that the U.S. military is concentrating in very few places in the Middle East and spreading more to bolster security.
“We consider it important to work with our partners in the region to present a more complex targeting problem to Iran,” he said, and the U.S. will consider other bases and opportunities to mobilize troops to achieve that goal.
Mackenzie said he was particularly concerned about Iran’s production of ballistic and cruise missiles as well as armed drones.
“And that’s why I’m so interested in these things because they continue to develop them,” he said. “And their research in this area and showing no signs of declining in the production of new and increasingly lethal and capable weapons.”