BAGHDAD, March 7 (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Tuesday, nearly 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and said Washington was determined to maintain its military presence in the country.
The 2003 invasion led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and created instability that paved the way for the rise of Islamic State militants after the US withdrew its forces in 2011.
Austin, the most senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq, was the last commander of US forces there after the invasion.
Austin told reporters after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad al-Sudani that U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government.
“The United States will continue to strengthen and expand our partnership in support of Iraq’s security, stability and sovereignty,” he said.
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The U.S. currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq — and an additional 900 in Syria — to help advise and assist local troops in the fight against Islamic State, which seized territory in both countries in 2014.
Islamic State is far from the formidable force it once was, but militant cells survive in parts of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.
The visit also supports Sudan’s pushback against Iranian influence in the country, former officials and experts said.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq periodically target US forces and its embassy in Baghdad with rockets. In 2020, the United States and Iran came close to full-scale conflict after US forces killed the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, General Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike.
“I think Iraqi leaders share our interest that Iraq not become a playground for conflict between the United States and Iran,” said a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Austin met with Nechirwan Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Region of Sudan and Iraq, amid a long-running dispute between the national government and the Kurdish government over budget transfers and oil revenue sharing.
Former President George W. The Bush administration cited its belief that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction to justify its decision to invade Iraq. American and Allied forces later discovered that no such stockpiles existed.
Between 185,000 and 208,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the war, according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
Austin, the former commander of all US forces in the Middle East, said in 2011 that the US had achieved its military objectives in Iraq.
But under former President Barack Obama, the United States sent thousands of troops to Iraq and Syria three years later to bolster the fight against Islamic State.
Statement by Idris Ali in Baghdad; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Angus MacSwan
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Focused on the Pentagon in Washington DC, the national security correspondent reports on US military operations and operations around the world and the impact they have. It reported from more than two dozen countries covering Iraq, Afghanistan and much of the Middle East, Asia and Europe. From Karachi, Pakistan.