The US-led coalition against ISIS has finished its combat mission in Iraq and will shift to a training and advisory role, Iraq’s national security adviser said on Thursday.
The Iraqi government has been under pressure from powerful pro-Iranian political groups with armed wings that have demanded all US troops leave the country.
The change of the mission for about 2,500 American troops stationed in the war-battered country by the end of the year was first announced by US President Joe Biden in July when he hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi.
“We are officially announcing the end of the coalition forces’ combat mission,” National Security Adviser Qassem Al Aaraji wrote on Twitter, after a meeting between the coalition and the Joint Operations commanders of the Iraqi security forces.
“The relationship with the international coalition continues in the areas of training, advising and capacity building” of Iraqi forces, he added.
In effect, about 2,500 US and 1,000 other coalition troops deployed in Iraq will remain there, as they have been acting as advisers and trainers since mid-2020.
ISIS established a so-called caliphate across large sections of Syria and Iraq from 2014.
It was defeated in Iraq in 2017 after offensives by Iraqi forces, with the support of the coalition that has included more than 80 countries, among them Britain, France and several Arab nations.
Even though Iraq declared victory against ISIS in December 2017, the group’s remnants still carry out attacks against security forces and civilians and in recent weeks killed several Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq.
‘Change in messaging’
The Hashed Al Shaabi, a former coalition of Iraqi paramilitary groups now integrated into the regular forces, an influential political player and ally of Tehran, has been particularly outspoken about the departure of American troops.
On social media networks, groups close to pro-Iranian factions have been issuing threats and reminding Washington of a December 31 deadline they have set for a full US withdrawal.
Dozens of rocket and drone attacks have been carried out against American troops and interests in Iraq in recent months. Never claimed, these attacks are systematically blamed by the US on pro-Iranian factions.
Analyst Nicholas Heras of the Newlines Institute in Washington said the US “continues to have the same military role in Iraq as before, with the major change being the messaging of that role”.
Washington does not plan to abandon Iraq to the influence of its archenemy Tehran, with whom it is engaged in a standoff over the Iranian nuclear programme.
“Put simply, the political and security environment in Iraq is so charged that the Biden team wants America to keep a low profile and avoid crises, especially with Iran.
“The White House is well aware that if the United States rocks the boat too much in Iraq, Iran-backed militias will attack US forces, which could ruin American public opinion on staying in the nuclear talks with Iran.”
Iraqi Interior Ministry media official Gen Saad Maan told a news conference on Thursday that “the coalition will have completely finished the transition to a non-combat mission before the end of the year”.
He was quoting what coalition commander Maj Gen John Brennan had said during their meeting.
The majority of US troops sent to Iraq in 2014 as part of the coalition were withdrawn under former president Donald Trump.
But Iraq remains an important link for Washington’s strategic posture, particularly for anti-ISIS operations in neighboring Syria.
A UN report early this year said ISIS maintains some 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria and conducts a sustained insurgency on both sides of the border.
The coalition insists it is in Iraq at the invitation of the government, its troops now stationed at three Iraqi bases managed by Iraqi forces.
In November, it underlined in a press statement the departure from Iraq of more than 2,100 lorries carrying military equipment.
In recent months, it has made numerous announcements highlighting its change of mission.