The United States will withdraw over 2,000 troops from Iraq this month, roughly half of its troop presence, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said Wednesday.
In a long awaited move that works toward President Trump’s goal of getting America out of “endless wars,” forces will be cut from 5,200 to 3,000, Marine General Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, announced during a visit to Iraq.
U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and withdrew in 2011 only to return in 2014 after the Islamic State group invaded large parts of the country. The reduction is a testament to the Trump administration’s confidence in U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces to handle the Islamic State group, McKenzie said.
“The U.S. decision is a clear demonstration of our continued commitment to the ultimate goal, which is an Iraqi security force that is capable of preventing an ISIS resurgence and of securing Iraq’s sovereignty without external assistance,” McKenzie said, according to excerpts released by Centcom. “The journey has been difficult, the sacrifice has been great, but the progress has been significant.”
The remaining troops will continue advising and assisting Iraqi security forces in rooting out remaining Islamic State group forces, he said.
A senior administration official has also reportedly said that an announcement on the withdrawal of additional troops from Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have been since 2001, will be made in the coming days.
McKenzie announced in June that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan had fallen to 8,600, the number that the U.S. agreed to in a February deal with the Taliban that sets the terms for a U.S. withdrawal. The deal calls for a full withdrawal by May 2021 if the Taliban follows through on its promise to break with al Qaeda.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday that the move is an example of Trump making good on his promise to end “endless wars.”
“When he says, ‘I’m going to end endless wars,’ it is not a slogan like it’s been for Democrats and past presidents. It is an actual truth. It’s what he wants to do, when you look across the world, he’s defeated the ISIS caliphate,” McEnany said.
“He met with the Iraqi prime minister and this was a deliverable from that meeting, the drawdown of U.S. troops. And we believe Iraqi forces are trained and equipped to handle the security of their country,” she continued.
While Trump has mentioned withdrawing all troops from Iraq, Pentagon officials have warned that military presence in the country is still necessary to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State and to assist the Iraqi government in limiting Iran’s political and military influence.
Relations between the U.S. and Iraq were strained in January when a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Iran retaliated by launching a ballistic missile attack on al-Asad air base in Iraq, resulting in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops, while Iraqi lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution to remove all U.S.-led coalition forces from the country.
In March, U.S. fighter jets struck five sites, targeting Iranian-backed Shiite militia members who had a suspected role in the January attack.