(Photo credit: Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office/AFP)
The US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, visited the Iraqi capital Baghdad on an unannounced trip on 7 March, during which he confirmed Washington’s commitment to maintaining its military presence in the country.
“US forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq … The United States will continue to strengthen and broaden our partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability, and sovereignty,” Austin told reporters following a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani.
According to a statement released by Sudani’s office, the prime minister affirmed his government’s “keenness to strengthen and consolidate relations with the United States of America, at various levels.”
Sudani also told Austin that his government’s approach is based on “pursuing balanced relations” with regional and international countries “based on common interests and respect for sovereignty.”
“The stability of Iraq is the key to the security and stability of the region,” the Iraqi statement added. It goes on to say that Sudani and Austin discussed the role of Iraq’s security forces in “combatting terrorism” and pursuing the eradication of ISIS in the country.
The US Defense Secretary also visited Erbil in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and met with the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Nechirivan Barzani, during which Austin stressed the need for cooperation between the KRG and Baghdad. He also condemned the “repeated cross-border attacks” carried out by Iran.
Kurdish separatist movements operating on the Iran-Iraq border have been launching cross-border attacks on the Islamic Republic for years. Tehran also accused these groups of being involved in the recent unrest inside Iran. The IKR has been described by Kurdish officials as an ‘Israeli spy hub,’ and Tehran launched strikes against it in the past.
According to unnamed former officials and experts cited by Reuters, Austin’s visit centered around pushing back Iranian influence in Iraq.
“I think that Iraqi leaders share our interest in Iraq not becoming a playground for conflict between the United States and Iran,” a senior US defense official said anonymously.
An Iraqi official confirmed that Austin’s trip took place with knowledge and approval from Baghdad. This year, Sudani approved the presence of Washington’s army in Iraq, which he said was needed to continue pursuing ISIS.
However, in 2020, following the illegal US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, which took place in Iraq and constituted a major violation of the country’s sovereignty, the Iraqi parliament voted on a resolution calling for the withdrawal of US troops from the country.
The resolution specifically called for the cancellation of Iraq’s formal request for US military assistance against ISIS, which was issued in 2014. Washington completely rejected this resolution.
Washington’s illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 directly resulted in the formation of the extremist group’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which crossed over into Syria in 2011 with US and Saudi support – subsequently becoming ISIS.