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The New Arab

Trump pushing long-term military presence in Iraq after IS

Islamic State vs 'idiotic policy': From a German protest against war in Iraq [AFP file-photo]

Date of publication: 5 May, 2017

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Donald Trump is pushing for a long-term deployment of US forces in Iraq even after Islamic State is defeated, in a reversal of his predecessor's decision to end American occupation.

Donald Trump is pushing for a long-term deployment of US forces in Iraq even after Islamic State jihadis are defeated, in what could amount to a 'repeal' of his predecessor's decision to end the American occupation of the country in 2011.

Washington and Baghdad are already in talks to keep American troops in Iraq after the fight against the Islamic State group in the country is concluded, US official and Iraqi officials told the Associated Press, talks The New Arab's sources in Iraq's parliament say are proceeding without the legislature's knowledge.

According to AP, the officials underlined that the discussions are ongoing and that nothing is finalised.

On Friday, however, Iraq's prime minister, reacting to the reports, claimed no US combat troops would stay in Iraq after the fight against IS is concluded.

Abadi, partially confirming the reports, claimed the American troops would be 'advisers' who will help Iraq's security forces maintain "full readiness" for any "future security challenges." The US government is yet to issue a comment.

Abadi's denial are the result of pressure from pro-Iranian factions opposed to permanent US presence in Iraq, an official in the Iraqi government, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to comment, told The New Arab via telephone.

There already have been undeclared inscreases in the number of US troops deployed to Iraq, with 300 to 500 new soldiers posted to Anbar and Nineveh provinces, Iraqi offocials have told The New Arab.

The additional forces came from bases in Kuwait, a high-ranking general told The New Arab via telephone, asking not to be named.

"In the beginning, we thought the postings were a routine rotation...but it has now been confirmed that they are additional forces," he said, adding that most of the soldiers were sent to outposts south of Mosul and Haditha dam in Anbar province.

The general said the deployment is approved by the prime minister, but that political pressures have forced the government to keep a tight lid on the news.

Iraqi lawmakers say they have not been consulted.

"The American side must deal with official channels in the central government regarding increasing the number of foreign troops in Iraq," MP Majed al-Gharawi told reporters, vowing that the Security and Defence Committee would seek a meeting with the prime minister to discuss the reports.

"The new US president's decision to send more US troops to bases in...Iraq is tantamount to re-occupation," he added.

There is a general understanding on both sides that it would be in the long-term interests of each to have that continued presence

Curbing jihadi resurgence

According to AP, the talks point to a consensus by both governments that, in contrast to the US withdrawal in 2011, a longer-term presence of American troops in Iraq is needed to ensure that an insurgency does not bubble up again once the militants are driven out.

“There is a general understanding on both sides that it would be in the long-term interests of each to have that continued presence. So as for agreement, yes, we both understand it would be mutually beneficial. That we agree on,” a US official told the agency.

The talks apparently involve US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis and Iraqi officials over “what the long-term US presence would look like,” the American official said, adding that discussions were in early stages and “nothing has been finalised.”

US forces in Iraq would be stationed inside existing Iraqi bases in at least five locations in the Mosul area and along Iraq’s border with Syria, the Iraqi government official said.

They would continue to be designated as advisers to dodge the need for parliamentary approval for their presence, he said.

He said Abadi is looking to install a “modest” Iraqi military presence in Mosul after the fight against the Islamic State group is concluded along with a small number of US forces. The forces would help control security in the city and oversee the transition to a political administration of Mosul, he said.

The US official emphasised that there were no discussions of creating independent American bases in Iraq, as such a move would require thousands more personnel. He said the troops levels would be “several thousand … similar to what we have now, maybe a little more.”

Currently, the Pentagon has close to 7,000 US troops in Iraq, many not publicly acknowledged because they are on temporary duty or under specific personnel rules. The forces include troops training Iraqi forces, coordinating airstrikes and ground operations, and special forces operating on the front lines.

The news comes as Iraqi forces are struggling to push IS fighters out of a cluster of neighbourhoods in western Mosul that mark the last patch of significant urban terrain the group holds in Iraq, nearly three years after the militants overran nearly a third of the country.

Such an agreement would underscore how the fight against IS has drawn the US into a deepening role in Iraq.

At the height of the surge of US forces in 2007 to combat sectarian violence that nearly tore Iraq apart, there were about 170,000 American troops in the country. The numbers were wound down eventually to 40,000 before the complete withdrawal in 2011 under Obama.

The US intervention against the Islamic State group, launched in 2014, was originally cast as an operation that would largely be fought from the skies with a minimal footprint on Iraqi soil. Nevertheless, that footprint has since grown given Iraqi forces’ need for support.

During a visit to Iraq in February, Mattis and Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top US commander in Iraq, described an enduring partnership between the US and Iraq.

“I imagine we’ll be in this fight for a while and we’ll stand by each other,” Mattis said.

Townsend, who was standing by Mattis, declined to say how long the United States will stay in Iraq. But, he said, “I don’t anticipate that we’ll be asked to leave by the government of Iraq immediately after Mosul.” He added, “I think that the government of Iraq realizes their very complex fight, and they’re going to need the assistance of the coalition even beyond Mosul.”

The talks over a longer-term US presence has greatly concerned Iran, which in turn is increasing support to some of Iraq’s Shia militia forces

The Iranian connection

The talks over a longer-term US presence has greatly concerned Iran, which in turn is increasing support to some of Iraq’s Shia militia forces, said Jafar al-Husseini, a representative from Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia militia group with close ties to Iran.

“Iraq’s security forces and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (mostly Shia militia groups) have the ability to protect (Iraq’s) internal roads and borders, so why is Abadi using American security partners?” al-Hussein asked.

Abadi has long struggled to balance Iraq’s dependence on both the US and Iran. Both countries are key security and economic partners for Iraq, yet are often at odds with each other when it comes to regional politics and security in the greater Middle East.

Over the nearly three-year-long fight against IS, Iraqi forces closely backed by the US-led coalition have retaken some 65 percent of the territory the extremists once held in the country, according to the US-led coalition. But Iraq’s military is still in the process of rebuilding and reorganising after it was largely gutted by widespread corruption under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

With input from AP

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