BAGHDAD, March 7 (Reuters) – US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Tuesday, nearly 20 years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, saying Washington was committed to maintaining its military presence in the country. .
The 2003 invasion resulted in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians and created instability that eventually led to the rise of the Islamic State militants following the US withdrawal of troops in 2011.
Austin, the most senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq, was the last commanding general of US forces there after the invasion.
“US forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government,” Austin told reporters after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad al-Sudani.
“The United States will continue to strengthen and broaden our partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability and sovereignty,” he said.
The United States currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq – and an additional 900 in Syria – to help advise and assist local troops in combating the Islamic State, which seized large swathes of territory in both countries in 2014. was captured.
Islamic State is far from the formidable force it once was, but militant groups have survived in northern Iraq and parts of northeastern Syria.
Former officials and experts said the trip is also about supporting a Sudanese pushback against Iranian influence in the country.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have occasionally targeted US forces and its embassy in Baghdad with rockets. The United States and Iran edged closer to full-scale conflict in 2020 after the US military killed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike.
A senior US defense official said on condition of anonymity, “I think Iraqi leaders share our interest in not having Iraq become a playground for conflict between the United States and Iran.”
Austin met with Sudanese as well as Nechirvan Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, amid a long-running dispute over budget transfers and oil revenue sharing between the national government and the Kurdish government.
The administration of former President George W. Bush cited its belief that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction to justify the decision to invade Iraq. US and allied forces later discovered that such reserves did not exist.
Between 185,000 and 208,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the war, according to the Cost of War project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
Austin, the former head of all US forces in the Middle East, said in 2011 that the United States had achieved its military objectives in Iraq.
But under former President Barack Obama, the United States three years later sent thousands of troops back to Iraq and Syria to bolster the fight against Islamic State.
Reporting by Idris Ali in Baghdad; Editing by Andrew Havens and Angus MacSwan
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