The U.S. troops have ended their combat mission in Iraq, as per earlier agreements with the Iraqi government. But for the time being the Pentagon announced, all of the troops are staying put, with their role morphing into an “advise and assist” role with the Iraqi military that continues to fight insurgents from the Islamic State. 

The 2,500 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq as the transition to the advisory role resulted from talks between the U.S. and Iraqi governments. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said during an off-the-air press conference on December 9th, “This is a change in mission, not a change in physical posture,” Kirby said. “There won’t be a dramatic shift from yesterday to tomorrow.”

“The vast majority of what they’ve been doing for a while has been advise, assist and train,” he added stating those forces will retain the right to defend themselves if they are attacked.

The U.S.-led coalition has been fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) since the terror group swept across large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and established a self-styled “caliphate” and a return to 7th-century justice, replete with public executions. By 2017, ISIS had been driven from holding any territory at all in Iraq. However, they continued to conduct terrorist attacks on the people and government facilities. They’ve been pushed into the remote areas of the desert and the mountains.

Iraqi troops undergoing training from the U.S.-led coalition DVIDS photo

MG John W. Brennan Jr., commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a released statement and referred to ISIS with the term used by Iraqis and other countries in the region. 

“Many brave men and women gave their lives to ensure Daesh never returns, and as we complete our combat role, we will remain here to advise, assist, and enable the ISF, at the invitation of the Republic of Iraq,” he said. 

“ISIS is down but not out,” Brennan added. 

Back in July, President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi came to an agreement that would end the U.S.-led coalition’s combat mission but critics pointed out that it wouldn’t change the number of troops in Iraq, and it was a political move only in that it would help al-Kadhimi in the October elections. 

The deputy commander of the Joint Operations Command for Iraq, Lieutenant General Abdul Amir al-Shammari said that the Iraqi military was ready to handle the ISIS threat and that the timing was right.

“Our soldiers have demonstrated their ability to maintain the defeat of Daesh,” al-Shammari said. “We look toward the future with hope, providing stability, security, and prosperity for the men and women of Iraq.” 

“Today, we renew our partnership with the Coalition, who are now serving in a new capacity – with a mission to advise, assist, and enable our brave military warriors,” he added.

Iraqi PM al-Kadhimi and President Biden meet at the White House in July to announce the agreement to end the US combat mission to Iraq. AP photo

However, the Pentagon’s acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell wrote in a report released last month that, “The Iraqi Security Forces continued to demonstrate poor operational security, a lack of reliable information on operations against ISIS, complacency, and poor tactical control and coordination of strike assets.”

Most damning was in the report was that the U.S.-led coalition reported that Iraqi forces made “no significant achievement,” when carrying out operations without coalition assistance. 

However, the threat to U.S. coalition troops is not just from ISIS fighters, U.S. troops and the American bases and the embassy have been attacked dozens of times by rocket and drone attacks by Iran-backed and proxy Shi’ite militias that also fought the Sunni Islamic State and which say there is no longer a justification for Western forces to be in Iraq.

The militias are ostensibly part of the Iraqi military but have frequently acted in their own interests. They threatened Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi last year after he ordered the arrest of several militia members when reports of an impending attack was coming against U.S. troops. 

US Could Shift From a Combat to an Advisory Role in Iraq

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The political bloc for the Shiite militias took a huge blow during the Iraqi parliamentary elections earlier this fall when they were roundly defeated and thus lost a lot of power in the government. They cried foul and accused the government of rigging the elections. Then on November 7, a drone attack on the presidential palace attempting to assassinate al-Kadhimi has repeatedly been tied to the militias. 

This is hardly new. During the past three years, 30 Iraqi activists who criticized the militias were assassinated.  

The militias have vowed to attack coalition troops if they didn’t leave Iraq immediately after the end of combat operations was announced. They have called for volunteers to help fight the U.S.

“If U.S. forces do not withdraw at the end of the year, it can be defined only as an occupation,” Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, a militia that is part of the Iraqi government said in a released statement. The militia was formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State and was later absorbed into Iraq’s security forces.

“Targeting the U.S. occupation in Iraq is a great honor, and we support the factions that target it,” the group said.

But for the time being, the status quo in Iraq remains the same. Under a different name. 

Featured photo of US Army troops in Iraq in December 2018: DVIDS