U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a surprise trip to Iraq on Tuesday, nearly 20 years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and said Washington was committed to maintaining its military presence in the country.
The 2003 invasion killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and created instability that eventually paved the way for the rise of Islamic State militants after the United States withdrew its forces in 2011.
Austin, the highest-ranking official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq, was the last general commanding U.S. forces there after the invasion.
“U.S. forces are willing to remain in Iraq at the invitation of their government,” Austin told reporters after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani. “The United States will continue to strengthen and expand its partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability, and sovereignty.”
Washington currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq — and another 900 in Syria — to help advise and assist local troops in the fight against Islamic State, which in 2014 seized swaths of territory in both countries. Islamic State is far from the formidable force it was in the past, but militant cells have survived in parts of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.
According to former officials and experts, the trip is also aimed at supporting Sudan’s fight against Iranian influence in the country.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have occasionally fired rockets at U.S. forces and its embassy in Baghdad. The United States and Iran came close to entering an all-out conflict in 2020, after U.S. forces killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in a drone strike.
Austin met with Sudani, as well as Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani, amid a long-running dispute over budget transfers and the sharing of oil revenues between the national and Kurdish governments.