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The US and Iraq plan talks soon on ending the mission of the US-led military coalition in Iraq

There is a risk of the U.S. being drawn into a wider conflict in Iraq and beyond as anger over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and U.S. support for Israel fuels the strikes by Iranian proxies

Members of an Iraqi Shiite militant group carry the coffin during the funeral of a fighter with the Kataib Hezbollah, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike, in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 25, 2024.
Members of an Iraqi Shiite militant group carry the coffin during the funeral of a fighter with the Kataib Hezbollah, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike, in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 25, 2024.Hadi Mizban (AP)

The United States and Iraq expect to begin talks soon to wind down the mission of a U.S.-led military coalition formed to fight the Islamic State group in Iraq, both governments said Thursday.

The announcement comes as U.S. forces in Iraq have been increasingly targeted by Iran-backed militias, though the U.S. says the time frame for the discussions is not related to the attacks.

Since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, they have struck American military installations in Iraq more than 60 times and more than 90 times in Syria, with a mix of drones, rockets, mortars and ballistic missiles.

On Saturday, Kataib Hezbollah launched the militia’s most serious attack this year, firing multiple ballistic missiles at al-Asad Air Base, a large air base in western Iraq where U.S. troops have trained Iraqi security forces and now coordinate operations to counter IS. The U.S. responded Tuesday, hitting three known Iranian militia locations and killing some of those fighters, while leading to protests for U.S. forces to leave.

The situation highlights the risk of the U.S. being drawn into a wider conflict in Iraq and beyond as anger over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and U.S. support for Israel fuels the strikes by Iranian proxies.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the talks between the U.S. and Iraq are part of a higher military commission that was agreed upon last summer, before the war. The discussions will focus on the “transition to an enduring bilateral security partnership” between the two countries.

Iran-linked factions in Iraq are likely to claim as a victory the announcement about the talks on ending the U.S.-led mission.

A U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the discussions said the U.S. and Iraq have been “discussing this for months and the “timing is not related to recent attacks.” The U.S. will maintain the “full right of self-defense” during the talks, he said.

Iraq’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Baghdad aims to “formulate a specific and clear timetable that specifies the duration of the presence of international coalition advisors in Iraq” and to “initiate the gradual and deliberate reduction of its advisors on Iraqi soil,” eventually leading to the end of the coalition mission and a “move to comprehensive bilateral political and economic relations with the coalition countries.”

The ministry said Iraq is committed to ensuring the " safety of the international coalition’s advisors during the negotiation period in all parts of the country” and to “maintaining stability and preventing escalation.”

Iraqi officials have periodically called for a withdrawal of coalition forces for years, particularly in the wake of a U.S. airstrike in January 2020 that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis outside the Baghdad airport. On Tuesday at the funeral for one of the Kataib Hezbollah fighters killed in a U.S. counterstrike launched

The U.S. has had a continuous presence in Iraq since its 2003 invasion. Although all U.S. combat forces left in 2011, thousands of troops returned in 2014 to help the government of Iraq defeat IS.

In the years since, the presence of U.S. forces conducting counter-IS missions and training has been a lightning rod for an increasingly influential faction of Iran-aligned militias and politicians in the country. There are an estimated 2,500 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq now.

Scores of U.S. personnel have received minor injuries including traumatic brain injuries from the militia attacks against U.S. bases there. The U.S. has struck militia targets in return, including some linked to the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of mainly Shiite, Iran-backed paramilitary groups that is officially under the control of the Iraqi military although in practice it largely operates on its own. Iraqi officials have complained that the U.S. strikes are a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said there is no longer justification for the coalition’s presence in the country and that the Iraqi army is capable of tracking and fighting the remaining IS cells.

“We are a sovereign country, and therefore it is only natural that we moved towards this position,” he said. “This is a request from the people, and this is a democratic country.”

An Iraqi government official said Baghdad had sent a written request to the White House in November for the withdrawal of the coalition forces. The official said that Iraqi and U.S. officials were at odds over the time frame, with U.S. officials proposing a two- to five-year timeline while the Iraqis wanted a more immediate withdrawal.

The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. forces would likely remain in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, whose government has closer ties to Washington.

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