Members of a top Iraqi delegation expect to reach an agreement Friday with the Biden administration to end the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, the country’s foreign minister told VOA on Thursday.
In an exclusive interview with VOA’s Kurdish Service, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein discussed the proposed nature of cooperation between his country and U.S. forces once an agreement is reached, particularly in the fight against the Islamic State group.
“In my opinion, we will reach the agreement on Friday and then it will be announced that [American] fighting forces — I am talking about the fighting forces — will not remain in Iraq. But how they will not remain and when they exit is related to a timeline agreed on by both sides as well as technical matters and other issues related to the security of the forces,” Hussein told VOA.
The discussions in Washington are happening just days before a Monday meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House. The two plan to discuss a wide array of topics, including cooperation on political, economic, security and cultural issues.
Hussein is to meet Friday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Iraqi official told VOA that their discussions “will be on a range of issues including oil, energy, electricity, gas, culture, health, military and security, and finance.”
Earlier this week, a suicide bomb ripped through the Iraqi capital, killing at least 34 people. The attack, claimed by the Islamic State group, is the kind of violence that Iraqi forces, trained and equipped by the United States, are trying to deter.
When asked about the threat posed by the Islamic State group, Hussein said, “Naturally, the security and military sector will be an important subject in the conversation. America and Iraq have been allies and will remain allies against IS.
“What was called the Islamic State, or IS, has been destroyed and has since turned from an organization owning a state into a terrorist organization. Assistance against IS will remain,” he said.
U.S. support is expected to continue and will be a key focus in al-Kadhimi’s meeting with Biden, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, responding to VOA.
“Their government is requesting continuous support from us and the coalition for training and enabling their forces — its forces — logistics, intelligence sharing and other areas of security cooperation,” Psaki said.
The U.S. withdrew troops at the end of the Iraq War in 2011. American forces returned after the Islamic State group’s resurgence across Iraq and Syria in 2014, though.
In April, the U.S. and Iraq agreed to change the American troops’ mission, focusing on training and advisory roles, allowing for the redeployment of combat soldiers from Iraq.
While Baghdad is eager to show it can handle its own security, Iranian-backed militia groups have been targeting U.S. and Iraqi troops with drone and rocket attacks.
“I do not know who did these attacks, but we condemn them. There are investigations on these attacks which are, of course, terrorist acts on Irbil airport, Baghdad airport and the Green Zone,” Hussein said. “They are a part of the discussion, and they have always been a part of the discussions in Baghdad and here also. We hope these attacks will stop; otherwise, it will be dangerous not only for our international security but also for the region.”
The Iraqi government is also facing pressure from Iranian-linked political factions pushing for American troops to leave.
“We are working hard to push tensions between other countries away from Iraqi soil. We do not want to be a part of the conflict between other countries. We are discussing this not only with the United States but also with Iran,” Hussein said. “We have good relations with the Iranian government and are open in our discussions with them. We are asking for support and help from various countries, including from the United States and the neighboring countries.”
However, Baghdad needs U.S. military support to maintain stability, said Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“So that points to more public statements saying that Iraq is ready and requiring a U.S. military withdrawal, or at least combat troops to disappear. On the U.S. side, it's actually pretty much the same. There's definitely a goal on behalf of the Biden administration to pivot away from the Middle East, to push it down in the list of priorities as well,” Hall said.
About 2,500 American soldiers remain in Iraq, and a shift in their role may not necessarily mean a reduction in numbers.
A formal announcement on ending their combat mission, however, could be seen as a political win for al-Kadhimi ahead of Iraqi parliamentary elections scheduled for October.
Jeff Seldin and Rikar Hussein contributed to this report.