US PRESIDENT Donald Trump is expected to announce further troop withdrawals on Wednesday (9) from Afghanistan and from Iraq, where several thousand US troops hunting down jihadist sleeper cells have faced increasing attacks blamed on pro-Iran factions.
The deadly bomb and rocket attacks have put additional pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, who has pledged to rein in rogue groups pledged to fight the US military presence.
Kadhemi travelled to Washington last month for strategic talks, including on the future of the US-led coalition deployed in Iraq since 2014 to fight Daesh (the Islamic State group).
At the time, Trump told Kadhemi US forces would leave Iraq but gave no timetable or cap for troop levels.
A senior US official told reporters the president would make an announcement Wednesday but offered no details. There was no immediate response from the US-led coalition to a request for comment from AFP.
The US has already been steadily downsizing its troop levels in Iraq in recent months as Iraqis take over combat and training roles.
“These withdrawals are part of the agreed transition of the US-led coalition’s role in Iraq,” an Iraqi official told AFP.
US and other coalition troops stayed on after Daesh’s defeat in 2017 to support Iraqi forces with air strikes, drone surveillance and training to prevent a jihadist resurgence.
By late 2018, there were an estimated 5,200 American troops still stationed in Iraq, making up the bulk of the 7,500 coalition forces there, according to US officials.
Over the past year, dozens of rocket attacks have targeted those forces, the US embassy and logistics convoys heading to Iraqi bases, killing at least six military personnel — three Americans, one Briton and two Iraqis.
US officials have blamed the violence on hardline factions close to Tehran, which as Washington’s longtime foe has repeatedly demanded US troops leave the Middle East.
Tensions skyrocketed when a US drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad in January, prompting Tehran to mount a retaliatory missile strike against US troops in western Iraq.
Iraq’s parliament voted to oust all foreign troops still left in Iraq, although Kadhemi’s government — seen as friendly to the US — has delayed implementation.
Instead, the coalition has been quietly drawing down troops on its own since March, consolidating its presence from a dozen bases across the country to just three.
Some troops were redeployed to the main bases in Baghdad, Arbil in the north and Ain al-Asad in the west, but most were transferred outside of Iraq, US officials told AFP.
They said the downsizing was long-planned as Daesh had been defeated, but admitted the withdrawal timeline was accelerated in response to rocket attacks and the fear Covid-19 could spread among military partners.
France has already withdrawn its troops and Britain has significantly downsized to just 100 personnel in recent months.
British, French and US special forces will remain in undisclosed locations around the country, diplomatic sources said.
Late Tuesday, a bomb targeted a supply convoy heading to an Iraqi base where US troops are deployed, killing one member of the Iraqi security forces.
Trump has sent mixed signals on troop levels in Iraq.
While he has vowed to bring troops home “quickly,” he also refused to include the word “withdrawal” in a joint statement following Kadhemi’s visit to the US, preferring the vaguer “redeployment”, a top Iraqi official told AFP.
And even as coalition officials insist their mission is exclusively focused on Daesh remnants, Trump has told troops in Iraq they are partly there to “watch over Iran”.
Finally, Iraqi officials have worried Trump’s decision-making could be linked to domestic concerns, two months ahead of a US presidential election.
“This seems tied more to Trump’s political calendar and the increasing threats to our troops sparked by his own ill-conceived policies,” wrote Brett McGurk, the former US special envoy to the coalition, on Wednesday.
The US president is also set to announce further withdrawals from Afghanistan in the coming days, the senior administration official said.
Washington currently has 8,600 soldiers deployed in accordance with a bilateral agreement signed in February between Washington and the Taliban.
The Pentagon said in August that its goal was to get down to fewer than 5,000 troops as inter-Afghan peace talks progress.
Trump previously mentioned in an interview with Axios that the White House aimed to reach 4,000 to 5,000 troops in Afghanistan before the US election on November 3.
Under the US-Taliban deal, all foreign troops must leave the country by the spring of 2021, in exchange for security commitments from the militants.