BAGHDAD – The mission of U.S. forces in Iraq has shifted to training and advisory roles, allowing for redeployment of combat forces remaining in the country, U.S. and Iraq delegates said Wednesday, after a third round of strategic U.S.-Iraq talks.
Statements issued by both sides, however, said the timing of such a redeployment would be determined in upcoming technical talks, without specifying when they would take place. They also stressed the need for continued security cooperation.
The talks – held virtually because of the pandemic – began in June under the Trump administration. Wednesday's round, the first under President Joe Biden, centered on an array of issues, including the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Iraq had requested the latest round, partly in response to pressure from Shiite political factions and militias loyal to Iran that have lobbied for the remaining U.S. troops to leave Iraq. Participants included U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hassan.
A State Department statement following the talks said that with increasing capacity of Iraqi security forces, the mission of U.S. and coalition forces “has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq.”
The Pentagon press secretary, John Kirby, said Wednesday's statement does not represent an agreement to begin a further withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool said later that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has ordered the formation of a committee that would hold technical talks with the American side to approve “mechanisms and timings” related to the redeployment.
Al-Kadhimi has walked a tightrope as he negotiates with the Americans while coming under growing pressure from local militias loyal to Tehran.
Last week, a convoy of heavily armed Shiite militiamen drove openly through Baghdad, denouncing the U.S. presence and threatening to cut off al-Kadhimi's ear, a display that clearly sought to undermine the premier.
Angered, al-Kadhimi asked Iran's leaders to rein in Iran-backed militias in Iraq and suggested he would confront the factions, two Iraqi officials said Wednesday. In the note, al-Kadhimi threatened to “announce clearly who backs these groups,” the officials said.
It was not immediately clear who the message was given to. The timing suggested al-Kadhimi, who has appeared powerless in confronting the militias, was looking to appease the Americans ahead of Wednesday's talks.
The message led to a two-day visit this week by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force chief Ismail Qaani to Baghdad, where he met with militia and Shiite political leaders and called for calm, according to a senior Iraqi Shiite politician.
The two Iraqi officials and the Shiite politician all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.