BAGHDAD: Baghdad and Washington have agreed to set up a committee to start talks on the future of the US-led military coalition in Iraq to set a timetable for a phased withdrawal of troops and the coalition’s end, Iraq’s foreign ministry said.
The US has 2,500 troops in Iraq, advising and assisting local forces to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State, which in 2014 seized large parts of Iraq and Syria before being defeated. Hundreds of troops from mostly European countries are also part of the coalition.
Iraq’s government says the Islamic State is defeated and the coalition’s job is over, but it is keen to explore establishing bilateral relations with coalition members, including military cooperation in training and equipment.
Iraq also says the coalition’s presence has become a magnet for instability amid near-daily attacks by Iran-backed militias on bases housing the forces and US retaliatory strikes, escalating since the Israeli war in Gaza began in October.
The talks are set to take place between military officials to assess the operational requirements and efficacy of Iraqi security forces and the threats they face, based on which both sides will determine how quickly the coalition is phased out and how future bilateral relations will look.
Reuters yesterday reported that the US and Iraq were set to initiate the talks.
US and Iraqi officials say the process is expected to take many months if not longer, with the outcome unclear and no withdrawal of US forces imminent.
Washington fears that a fast withdrawal may create a security vacuum that could be filled by arch-rival Iran or the Islamic State, which maintains sleeper cells in desert areas and has continued low-level attacks despite holding no territory.
The US invaded Iraq and toppled leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, precipitating years of insurgency war and fighting among the country’s ethnic and religious groups. It withdrew its troops in 2011 but sent thousands back after the Islamic State’s surge into the country three years later.