US to reduce Iraq military presence as tensions ease
The United States said on Thursday that it would reduce the number of its troops in Iraq in the coming months as friction between the two countries eased under a new prime minister in Baghdad.
The US also promised support to prop up the struggling Iraqi economy as the two nations held their first strategic dialogue in more than a decade.
Tensions skyrocketed following a US strike on Baghdad in January that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, with lawmakers in Baghdad demanding the expulsion of the roughly 5,200 US troops in the country.
President Donald Trump responded by threatening crippling sanctions and, according to US military sources, Washington began planning a vast bombing spree against militias blamed for rocket attacks on US forces.
In a joint US-Iraqi statement, the US said that the reason for its military's return to Iraq in 2014 - defeating extremists from the Islamic State group - had made major headway.
"The two countries recognized that in light of significant progress towards eliminating the ISIS threat, over the coming months the US would continue reducing forces from Iraq," the statement said.
"The United States reiterated that it does not seek nor request permanent bases or a permanent military presence in Iraq."
The coalition has already reduced the number of bases it operates in Iraq in recent months, from twelve to three.
David Schenker, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, told reporters that Iraqi and US delegations did not discuss a timeline for reducing troops.
Due to coronavirus travel restrictions, top-level talks originally scheduled to take place in Baghdad were demoted to a brief online discussion session.
New PM changes tone
Tensions have calmed substantially since Mustafa Al-Kadhimi – a former head of Iraqi intelligence with close ties to the US and its allies in the region – became Iraq’s prime minister in May.
Two Iraqi officials said that Kadhimi has been invited to the White House this year, a diplomatic olive branch his predecessor Adel Abdel Mahdi had never received.
"There was a lack of confidence in the [US] relationship with the previous government," one of the officials said.
Iraq in the joint statement promised to protect US bases, which have been targeted by a barrage of rocket attacks by pro-Iranian militias.
The United States said it would look to encourage investment and promote economic reform in Iraq, which was rocked last year by major protests against unemployment and corruption.
"We will support the new government through the international financial institutions to help it meet the challenge of Covid-19 and declining oil revenues," Schenker said.
Iraq's economy relies heavily on oil exports, with faltering prices and low demand drastically shrinking the government's ability to pay wages, pensions and welfare to eight million Iraqis.
After Kadhimi took charge, the United States extended a waiver from American sanctions to let Iraq keep importing much-needed gas from Iran, although the exemption runs out in September.
‘Right people in the right place’
"The entire US-Iraq bilateral relationship will not be fixed in a single day," said Robert Ford, an analyst at the Middle East Institute and a former US ambassador.
"But for once, we seem to have the right people in the right place at the right time," he said.
Miltias allied with Iran have toned down their anti-US language recently, amid a decrease in rocket attacks.
The spokesman for the pro-Iran Fatah bloc, Ahmad al-Assadi, has insisted on a six-month deadline for foreign troops' departure, while on Monday and Wednesday, two rockets hit near Baghdad airport and the American embassy, after weeks of calm.
But the rhetoric was more tempered than usual, with even the hardline Kataeb Hezbollah saying it would take a formal stance on the US-Iraqi talks only after the first session.