Biden heralds an end to Iraq combat even as US troops remain

A picture taken on Jan. 13, 2020, during a press tour organized by the U.S.-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Islamic State group, shows a view inside Ain al-Asad military airbase housing US and other foreign troops in the western Iraqi province of Anbar. (Ayman Henna/AFP/Getty Images)
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Jennifer Epstein and Peter Martin Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said Monday that the American combat mission in Iraq will be over by the end of the year, though the U.S. is expected to keep a military presence on the ground.

The U.S. will “be available to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with” Islamic State terrorists as needed, Biden said at the opening of a meeting with the Afghan leader in the Oval Office. “But we are not going to be by the end of the year in a combat mission.”

The largely symbolic announcement came as U.S. troops have gradually transitioned into an advisory and training role. The plan is expected to be detailed in a communique issued after the leaders’ meeting.

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The formal step gives both leaders boasting rights. It comes as Biden is completing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and as Iraqi leaders face pressure from hard-line Shiite factions who want all of the remaining 2,500 American troops to leave the country. Iran-backed militias have launched rocket and drone attacks against bases housing U.S. troops.

Asked Monday if there will be a reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said only that “the most important part is that it is a change in mission and that the mission is changing in Iraq.”

Al-Kadhimi said there is “no need for the combat troops,” in an interview with the Al-Arabiya channel this month. He said Iraq’s troops were undertaking the responsibility to fight Islamic State militants, but still needed training and intelligence backup. He added that Iraq doesn’t want to be a conflict arena between U.S. and Iran, and that he’s working with both sides.

The U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but returned in 2014 after the rise of Islamic State terrorists across large parts of Iraq and Syria. More recently, Iraq has become a proxy battleground for conflict between Washington and Tehran following former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

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