Defence officials and diplomats from the United States and Iraq met at the Pentagon on Monday for the start of two days of talks that include a meeting between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Iraqi Minister of Defense Thabit Muhammad al-Abbasi, Voice of America (VOA) reported.
The United States and Iraq hope to take critical steps to expand their partnership from one focused almost entirely on countering the Islamic State (IS) to a 360-degree whole-of-government alliance, Voice of America (VOA) reported.
“We recognize … our military mission will change as your forces build up their capabilities,” Austin told Abbasi, describing the talks as part of the “next step in our strategic defence partnership.”
Speaking through a translator, Abbasi said that while it was crucial to “maintain the victories” Iraqi and US forces had already secured, “[it is] most important now to enhance the relationships and the cooperation between us and the United States moving forward”.
“We are very encouraged that we are not going to leave Washington without success,” he added.
The US has about 2,500 troops in Iraq tasked with advising and assisting Iraqi security forces as they pursue the remnants of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or Daesh, VOA reported.
US officials say the arrangement, with Iraqi forces in the lead, since December 2021, has proven successful. US estimates show IS ranks have been cut to fewer than 1,000 fighters in Iraq while the group’s leadership in Iraq has likewise been continually degraded by Iraqi forces.
The payoff has been a 64 per cent reduction in IS attacks in Iraq so far this year, US officials say. And the attacks that have taken place have been less deadly
“I think it’s fair to say decades into the future, US forces will not be present in Iraq in the current formation that we are today,” Dana Stroul, deputy assistant secretary of defence for the Middle East, told reporters before the talks began on Monday.
US officials said they have also been encouraged by Iraq’s progress in fighting corruption, noting improvements especially in the banking sector, though Washington’s decision to blacklist 14 Iraqi banks for alleged money laundering on behalf of Iran sparked protests last month.
Still, the heavy focus is likely to remain on defence cooperation given the ongoing, if somewhat minimized, threat from IS, VOA reported.
“I still believe the reemergence of ISIS is a, is a considerable risk,” said Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve Commander Major General Matthew McFarlane ahead of the US-Iraq talks.
“Their ideology remains unconstrained and is still a threat as they seek to rebuild some capacity and capability to conduct attacks and to regain or reemerge as a, as a significant threat to the population,” he said.
While Iraqi forces have managed to maintain a consistent tempo of anti-IS operations, US military officials still see areas that need to be strengthened, such as using drones and surveillance aircraft to find and eliminate IS targets, VOA reported.
A US Defense Department Inspector General report released earlier this month also raised concerns about Iraq’s elite Counterterrorism Service, noting it “has not recruited any new soldiers since November 2018”.
US officials said work also needs to be done to prepare Iraqi forces to take on security concerns outside the scope of IS and counterterrorism, VOA reported.
US officials are additionally aware there is competition from other countries that would like to increase security cooperation with Iraq, such as China, Russia and Turkey, according to the report.