After conducting meetings with the Iraqi government, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), is confident that the United States will continue to have an enduring presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
General McKenzie was in Baghdad on Tuesday for a meeting with the new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi. The Iraqi Prime Minister is trying to perform a fine balancing act between factions of his government that are leaning towards the U.S. and those that are leaning towards Iran.
“I believe the government of Iraq recognizes the true value that the coalition brings to the fight against Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq, and I believe that going forward, they’re going to want us to be with them, I don’t sense there’s a mood right now for us to depart precipitously. And I’m pretty confident of that.” McKenzie said to the media shortly after his meeting with al-Kadhimi.
The U.S. still has between 5,000-6,000 troops in Iraq. Currently, relations between the two countries are beginning to thaw after incidents in December and January pushed things to a breaking point.
A point of contention with Washington has been the Iranian-led militias who have conducted over three dozen rocket and mortar attacks on bases that house U.S.-led coalition members. After several attacks in late December killed coalition troops and contractors, the U.S. conducted massive airstrikes against Iranian-led militias, most notably against Kataib Hezbollah which was responsible for these attacks.
The militias responded with assaults on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The U.S. then killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force and, by extension, of the Iranian-led militias. In a tit-for-tat response, Iran launched a missile strike on a U.S. base resulting in nearly 100 traumatic brain injuries.
So, under pressure from Washington, the government of Kadhimi — upon finding out that Khataib Hezbollah was planning more attacks against U.S. interests — acted. They raided the base from where the militia was organizing the attack. They arrested more than a dozen members and seized a number of rocket launchers.
The road ahead is a difficult road for al-Kadhimi who has to deal with a pro-Iranian Fatah faction in his government as well as keeping his vow to better protect American interests and lives.
“I think he’s negotiating a land mine now. I think we need to help him,” McKenzie said. “He’s in a very difficult position.”
“Certainly we need some foreign presence in Iraq,” McKenzie added. “I don’t know that it needs to be as big as it is now, because ultimately that’s going to be a political, not a military, decision. But I think the Iraqis know, welcome and value what we do for them now.”
The U.S. has propped up and supported both the conventional Iraqi military and the Iraqi commandos; it has conducted training and joint counter-terrorism missions with each.
How many U.S. troops will remain in Iraq is unknown. The number is bound to decrease, but a future American presence in the country appears to be a reality.
The U.S. troops had returned to Iraq in 2014 to help the government root out members of the Islamic State (ISIS) who took over vast swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory in 2013.