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Iraq PM: We Don't Need US Combat Troops07/25 08:26

   Iraq's prime minister says his country no longer requires American combat 
troops to fight the Islamic State group, but a formal time frame for their 
redeployment will depend on the outcome of talks with U.S. officials this week.

   BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's prime minister says his country no longer requires 
American combat troops to fight the Islamic State group, but a formal time 
frame for their redeployment will depend on the outcome of talks with U.S. 
officials this week.

   Mustafa al-Kadhimi said Iraq will still ask for U.S. training and military 
intelligence gathering. His comments came in an exclusive interview with The 
Associated Press ahead of a planned trip to Washington, where he's slated to 
meet with President Joe Biden on Monday for a fourth round of strategic talks.

   "There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil," said 
al-Kadhimi, falling short of announcing a deadline for a U.S. troop departure. 
Iraq's security forces and army are capable of defending the country without 
U.S.-led coalition troops, he said.

   But al-Kadhimi said any withdrawal schedule would be based on the needs of 
Iraqi forces, who have shown themselves capable in the last year of conducting 
independent anti-IS missions.

   "The war against IS and the readiness of our forces requires a special 
timetable, and this depends on the negotiations that we will conduct in 
Washington," he said.

   The U.S. and Iraq agreed in April that the U.S. transition to a 
train-and-advise mission meant the U.S. combat role would end but they didn't 
settle on a timetable for completing that transition. In Monday's meeting at 
the White House, the two leaders are expected to specify a timeline, possibly 
by the end of this year.

   The U.S. troop presence has stood at about 2,500 since late last year when 
former President Donald Trump ordered a reduction from 3,000.

   The U.S. mission of training and advising Iraqi forces has its most recent 
origins in former President Barack Obama's decision in 2014 to send troops back 
to Iraq. The move was made in response to the Islamic State group's takeover of 
large portions of western and northern Iraq and a collapse of Iraqi security 
forces that appeared to threaten Baghdad. Obama had fully withdrawn U.S. forces 
from Iraq in 2011, eight years after the U.S. invasion.

   "What we want from the U.S. presence in Iraq is to support our forces in 
training and developing their efficiency and capabilities, and in security 
cooperation," al-Kadhimi said.

   The Washington trip comes as the premier's administration has faced one 
setback after another, seriously undermining public confidence. Ongoing missile 
attacks by militia groups have underscored the limits of the state to prevent 
them and a series of devastating hospital fires amid soaring coronavirus cases 
have left dozens dead.

   Meanwhile, early federal elections, in line with a promise al-Kadhimi made 
when he assumed office, are less than three months away.

   Chief on the agenda in Washington, however, is the future of American-led 
coalition forces in Iraq.

   Iraq declared victory over IS in late 2017 after a ruinous and bloody war. 
The continued presence of American troops has become a polarizing issue among 
Iraq's political class since the U.S.-directed drone strike that killed 
powerful Iranian general Qassim Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi 
al-Muhandis on Iraqi soil last year.

   To quell the threat of widespread instability following the targeted 
killings, the U.S. and Iraq have held at least three rounds of strategic talks 
centering on Iraq's military needs in the ongoing fight against IS and to 
formalize a timeline for withdrawal.

   Four years since their territorial defeat, IS militants are still able to 
launch attacks in the capital and roam the country's rugged northern region. 
Last week, a suicide bomber killed 30 people in a busy Baghdad marketplace. 
That attack was later claimed by IS.

   Al-Kadhimi has faced significant pressure from mainly Shiite political 
parties to announce a timeline for a U.S. troop withdrawal. Ongoing rocket and, 
more recently, drone attacks targeting the American military presence have also 
heaped pressure on the government. They are widely believed to be perpetrated 
by Iran-aligned Iraqi militia groups.

   An announcement that combat troops will withdraw might serve to placate 
Shiite parties but will have little impact on the ground: The coalition's 
combat mission ended effectively in November when the Pentagon reduced U.S. 
troops in the country to 2,500, according to Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein. 
Shiite parties have said they do not object to trainers or advisors who may 
remain as part of the coalition.

   U.S. and coalition officials have maintained that U.S. troops are no longer 
accompanying Iraqi forces on ground missions and that coalition assistance is 
limited to intelligence gathering and surveillance and the deployment of 
advanced military technologies. Iraqi military officials have stressed they 
still need this support going forward.

   "Iraq has a set of American weapons that need maintenance and training. We 
will ask the American side to continue to support our forces and develop our 
capabilities," al-Kadhimi said.

   Al-Kadhimi assumed power as a consensus candidate following months of 
political jockeying between rival parliamentary blocs. The blocs were firebrand 
cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's coalition on one side and paramilitary commander and 
former minister Hadi al-Ameri's Fatah group on the other.

   The stakes were high: Al-Kadhimi's predecessor had resigned facing pressure 
from historic mass anti-government protests. At least 600 people were killed as 
Iraqi forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds.

   Al-Kadhimi presented himself as a champion of protester demands and set a 
lofty agenda: He promised to hold early elections, now scheduled for Oct. 10, 
and to bring to account the killers of activists, including whoever killed 
prominent commentator Hisham al-Hashimi outside his home last summer.

   The arrest of an Interior Ministry employee in the shooting death of 
al-Hashimi fell short, many said, because it did not reveal which group ordered 
the killing.

   Critics say al-Kadhimi has not gone far enough. This is partly because the 
very conditions that facilitated his rise to the premiership have also served 
as his chief limitation in parliament.

   Political opposition watered down ambitious economic reforms that targeted 
Iraq's bloated public sector when the country faced a disastrous financial 
crisis after falling oil prices. Without a party backing him in parliament, and 
with rival parties vying to control ministries and other state institutions, 
al-Kadhimi's government has appeared weak.

   Repeated standoffs with Iran-backed militia groups following the arrests of 
militiamen suspected of launching attacks against the U.S. Embassy and U.S. 
troops have further tarnished the government's credibility.

   Activists whose cries for elections once resonated in the squares of the 
capital now say they will boycott the October polls, distrustful that the 
political establishment could ever produce free and fair elections.

   A U.N. monitoring mission has been established in hopes of boosting voter 
turnout. But protesters have taken to the streets recently and expressed 
outrage over the rise in killings of prominent activists and journalists. Even 
al-Kadhimi conceded certain forces were actively seeking to undermine the polls.

   "We are in a sensitive situation. We need to calm the political situation 
until we reach the elections," he said.

   Al-Kadhimi has managed to prove his mettle in one arena: That of regional 
mediator. Iraq's friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran have brought 
both regional foes to the negotiation table for at least two rounds of talks in 
Baghdad.

   "Iraq has succeeded in gaining the trust of these countries, and 
accordingly, it is working toward the stability of the region."

 
 
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