The U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS) said Friday that a small number of its forces might leave Iraq following a decision to shut down its ground forces command headquarters, known as the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command (CJFLCC).
The coalition announced the shutdown of the headquarters on Monday during a ceremony in Baghdad. It said the decision marked the end of major combat operations in Iraq and Syria against IS and a change in the responsibilities of the coalition.
“The efficiencies gained by headquarters consolidation will enable a slight reduction in personnel within the theater of operations,” U.S. Army Colonel Thomas Veale, a spokesman for the coalition, told VOA.
Veale said the change would consolidate the coalition’s missions to advise and assist the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) under a single headquarters.
“This reflects the coalition’s commitment to eliminate unnecessary command structures as the nature of its support to the ISF evolves from supporting and enabling combat operations to the training and development of self-sufficient Iraqi security-related capabilities,” he added.
5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq
The exact number of coalition forces in Iraq is unknown, but the U.S. has said it currently has an estimated 5,000 forces in the country.
Veale said that number “will gradually decrease over time as the ISF demonstrates increased capability and capacity.”
The Iraqi government declared victory over the Islamic State terror group last December when the militants lost control over their last pockets in western Anbar, near the border with Syria.
Comments about the withdrawal of coalition forces were made openly in February when Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said “the battle against IS has ended and so the level of the American presence will be reduced.”
Shift in focus
At the same time, the coalition declared it was shifting its focus in Iraq away from supporting Iraqi combat operations to sustaining military gains against IS in the country.
Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, at that time told VOA that a “small number” of troops had shifted from Iraq to bolster a campaign against militants in Afghanistan.
More recently, Turkish state-owned Anadolu Agency reported last week that an unknown number of French troops had left their positions in Iraq's Nineveh province to go to northeastern Syria, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are engaged in an operation to oust IS remnants from their last strongholds in Deir el-Zour province.
The next phase
Emboldened by the achievements over IS, Iraqi officials say they have entered the next phase in their relations with the coalition and other allies who helped them defeat the terror group.
“The commitment and professionalism of all the men and women from all the coalition nations has been of the highest order, and Iraq is immensely grateful for their sacrifice and dedication in this task,” Iraqi Brigadier General Yahya Rasool Abdullah said during the coalition announcement Monday.
“We look forward to taking the partnership forward with the Combined Joint Task Force, and a friendship that will endure for years to come,” he added.