The first U.S. troops in Iraq since the end of the Iraq war will be deployed to Iraq as never before, in a sign President Donald Trump is willing to engage with Iraq’s Shiite-led government to maintain security there.
Toward the end of the administration, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been threatening to scuttle U.S. funding to Iraqi security forces, and Trump also suggested an intent to directly withdraw troops from Iraq if it continued to lack progress in that fight against the Islamic State group.
But speaking Friday, Trump said the troops would focus on training the Iraqi forces and “providing them the kind of aid we’re asking them to provide, including air support.”
It was the latest indication that the U.S. is seeing greater flexibility on Iraq than it did last year. As the attacks on Mosul intensified, Trump had said he was considering withdrawing U.S. forces if things didn’t change. He said he would decide “in a couple of weeks” if that mission would continue.
Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend, U.S. forces spokesman in Baghdad, said most of the U.S. soldiers in Iraq will remain in country as advisers to Iraqi forces, and could work directly with Iraqi commandos, soldiers and police to help them fight IS.
“The U.S. mission is still moving forward,” Townsend said. “The first step is not leaving Iraq, it is leaving them as the indispensable partner in the war against terrorism.”
Trump’s announcement surprised the Obama administration as it nearly ended America’s longest war in Iraq, and new Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s promise that the troops would be deployed to Iraq “to continue to work with the Iraqi government in promoting stability, and to ensure the continued safety and security of the Iraqi people.”
The first round of U.S. forces in Iraq was almost entirely civilians: U.S. diplomats, contractors and military advisers, who will be working in three locations: Irbil, with Peshmerga forces, and Tal Afar with other coalition partners, as well as Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
The troop contingent has risen to about 360 military advisers and security contractors now, but more than twice that number previously planned for January. Troops expected in mid-2018 were never available to begin with, officials said.
U.S. policy towards Iraq has been focused on direct U.S. military intervention, with limited training in reserve, but the administration has not concluded that it is providing enough political assistance. That has implications for possible shifts in Iraq’s longer-term plans on military operations.
After defeating the Islamic State group, Washington had hoped Iraq could lay the foundation for future cooperation against its foes, including Iran and other regional countries. But with Iraqi forces failing to take some of the country’s largest cities and security so fragile, U.S. policy has shifted to relying on direct support from the Iraqis to maintain a measure of security.
The U.S. has two main objectives in Iraq: preventing terrorist attacks in the country, and supporting economic and social development, particularly after decades of authoritarian rule by former dictator Saddam Hussein. Those goals are balanced against American interests in maintaining pressure on the IS group, a Sunni extremist group.
Asked about increasing U.S. support to Iraqi forces, Mattis said Friday that he was pleased to be coordinating with Iraqi officials on how to “secure a stable, secure environment.”
“We’re still committed to stabilizing Iraq and supporting Iraq’s stability,” Mattis said. “We have started having direct meetings with the Iraqi government and we have seen a definite willingness to begin this relationship.”
Kazim Nasrallah, a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, noted that Trump’s “committment to the terrorism is not the same as ‘with’ it.”
“Iran’s terrorist support, its presence in Iraq and Syria … and its important efforts to establish a U.S.-based nuclear agreement with Iran by containing and controlling the Zionist regime [Israel] and to neutralize the nuclear threat of this rogue regime is also unchanged,” Nasrallah said.