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The U.S. is drawing down its military forces in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000, the top commander in the Middle East said Wednesday.
The move is in keeping with President Donald Trump’s pledge to cut the number of U.S. military personnel deployed overseas.
“This reduced footprint allows us to continue advising and assisting our Iraqi partners in rooting out the final remnants of ISIS in Iraq and ensuring its enduring defeat,” Gen. F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a speech in Baghdad.
McKenzie said the decision was taken because the U.S. had “confidence in the Iraqi Security Forces’ increased ability to operate independently.”
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Last month, he signaled that a troop-level adjustment in Iraq might be made amid indications Iraq’s military had improved its ability combat Islamic State group fighters.
U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, vowing to destroy Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction and end the brutal dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein. No such weapons were ever found, and Saddam was later captured, put on trial and executed by Iraq. U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011 but returned in 2014 after Islamic State militants overran large parts of the nation, along with neighboring Syria.
McKenzie said the U.S. troop presence in Iraq would be reduced in September, and Trump is likely to celebrate the withdrawal as progress made toward his 2016 election campaign promise to disentangle Americans from “endless wars” abroad.
Trump has also reduced the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, to 8,600, as part of a Taliban peace deal. He has pledged to further reduce the U.S. troop presence there, to under 5,000, by November. About 500 U.S. troops remain in Syria, where they are confronting the Islamic State group, after Trump ordered but did not see through a total U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria during Turkey’s invasion into northern Syria last year.
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“I think the administration is convinced that if you take the level of U.S. troops in Iraq to zero you risk the return of ISIS,” said Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, a defense expert at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The decision comes as Trump has faced severe backlash over a report in The Atlantic magazine claiming he made disparaging remarks about U.S. war dead. It also comes as he is trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden in polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election and after Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi visited Washington last month.
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of Quincy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based foreign affairs think tank, said Trump’s decision was “welcome news.”
But he added that “rather than fighting ISIS – which was the original rationale for the troop deployment in 2014 – Washington’s unhealthy obsession with Iran keeps the American military stuck in Iraq and Syria. The Iran obsession, in turn, has taken resources and attention away from the fight against ISIS.”
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