Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Tuesday to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the country, less than two weeks before the 20th anniversary of the American-led invasion that transformed the Middle Eastern nation.
After meetings with Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, and his top military and counterterrorism team, Mr. Austin assured Iraqi leaders that the United States would press on with the mission of advising and training the country’s armed forces.
“U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq,” he said after meeting Iraqi leaders.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq ousted the longstanding dictator Saddam Hussein and led to a brutal insurgency against U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies. It set off sectarian warfare and spurred the growth of Al Qaeda in Iraq, later paving the way for the rise of the Islamic State as well.
It resulted in Iraqi casualties estimated between 185,000-206,000, the vast majority of them civilians, according to the Cost of War project at the Watson Institute at Brown University. Some 4,600 U.S. service members also died, along with more than 3,600 military contractors. In addition, millions of Iraqis were displaced during the fighting, and only some have returned to their homes.
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Mr. Austin underscored that the current focus of U.S. forces in Iraq is on defeating the Islamic State and made clear that attacks on U.S. forces “undermine that mission,” a reference to attempts by Iranian drones to target military camps that house U.S. soldiers in Baghdad and northeastern Syria.
He reinforced the importance of Iraq continuing its gradual efforts to repatriate those Iraqis with ties to the Islamic State who are currently held in prison camps for Islamic State families in northeastern Syria, such as the sprawling Al Hol camp.
Tens of thousands of people live in the camp — the majority of them women and children — and about half the residents are Iraqi. The work of reintegrating them into Iraqi communities has been difficult because of widespread concerns that they will once again threaten Iraqi civilians.
According to assessments by the U.S. Central Command, the Islamic State has some 10,000 fighters and leaders in detention in Syria in addition to more than 25,000 in the Al Hol camp, adding that they are vulnerable to radicalization.
Mr. Austin never mentioned Iran by name. But his warning about attacks on U.S. troops and other comments urging Iraq to deepen and strengthen its partnerships with its Arab neighbors suggested that he was urging Iraq to do its best to counter Iran’s influence with ties to other Arab allies.
Hussein Allawi, the prime minister’s security adviser, said that the United States was committed to giving Iraq “technical support since Iraq owns U.S.-made weaponry” and providing special operations training for Iraq’s counterterrorism units.
The United States has 2,500 troops in Iraq and an additional 900 in Syria to help advise and assist allied local forces in combating Islamic State fighters there. In 2014, the Islamic State seized territory in both countries, bringing much of northern Iraq under its control.
It took more than three years of hard fighting and the help of an international coalition, as well as Iran-backed Iraqi militias to win back the territory.
The numbers of Islamic State attacks have declined annually since the Islamic State lost its territory in 2017. But some parts of Iraq still see near daily attacks with small-arms fire and sometimes improvised explosive devices.