WASHINGTON — Six months after a deadly American airstrike in Baghdad enraged Iraqis and fueled demands to send all U.S. troops home, the top U.S. general for the Middle East is talking optimistically about keeping a smaller, but enduring military presence there.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, met Tuesday with Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and said afterward that he believes the Iraqis welcome the U.S. and coalition troops, especially in the ongoing fight to keep Islamic State militants from taking hold of the country again.
"I believe that going forward, they're going to want us to be with them," McKenzie told a small group of reporters, speaking by phone hours after he left Iraq. "I don't sense there's a mood right now for us to depart precipitously. And I'm pretty confident of that."
Tensions spiked between the U.S. and Iraq in January after a U.S. drone strike near the Baghdad airport killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Angry Iraqi lawmakers, spurred on by Shiite political factions, passed a nonbinding resolution to oust all U.S.-led coalition forces from the country.
In response to the Soleimani killing, Iran on Jan. 8 launched a massive ballistic missile attack on al-Asad air base in Iraq, which resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops. Two months later, U.S. fighter jets struck five sites in retaliation, targeting Iranian-backed Shiite militia members believed responsible for the January rocket attack.
President Donald Trump has vowed to bring troops home and halt what he calls America’s endless wars. But he has also warned Iran to expect a bold U.S. response if Iranian-backed militias attack Americans in Iraq.
The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, but troops left in 2011. American forces returned to Iraq in 2014, after the Islamic State group began taking over large swaths of the country,
McKenzie last visited Iraq in early February, slipping into the country for a few hours to meet with leaders as anti-American sentiment was soaring and violent protests and rocket attacks were pummeling the American Embassy.
Relations, however, have improved since al-Kadhimi took over in May. And while some groups, such as parliament's Iran-backed Fatah bloc, continue to call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, there is an emerging dialog between the U.S. and Iraq on the future relationship between the two nations.
McKenzie said the U.S. recognizes that al-Kadhimi is in a difficult position as he tries to deal with all factions within the government and maintain relations with both the U.S. and Iran.
The U.S. has criticized Iraq's government for being unable to rein in the Iran-backed militia groups it believes are orchestrating the attacks. And al-Kadhimi has pledged to protect American troops and installations from attacks.
"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."
McKenzie said he hopes the U.S.-Iraq meeting slated for this month will be face-to-face but knows the coronavirus pandemic could affect that. The talks are expected to run the gamut of their bilateral relations, with Washington prioritizing future force levels in Iraq and the ongoing militia attacks, and Baghdad focusing more on its dire economic crisis.
"Certainly we need some foreign presence in Iraq," McKenzie said. "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."
There are between 5,000 and 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
McKenzie would not say how many U.S. troops might stay. But he said Iraqi conventional forces now operate on their own. U.S. and coalition forces continue to conduct training and counterterrorism operations, including with Iraqi commandos. Any final decisions, he said, would be coordinated with the Iraqi government.
He said that as Iraqi troops grow more competent, fewer coalition forces would be needed.