President Joe Biden announced on Monday that U.S. troops will no longer serve in a combat role in Iraq, a largely symbolic move given that it has been years since Americans led combat operations there.
About 2,500 troops are deployed to Iraq currently, focused on training and support missions. Neither Biden nor White House officials would specify if that number will drop considerably in coming months.
After the announcement, Pentagon officials said there were no “operational updates” about troops deployed to the region.
During an afternoon meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the U.S. president said that American forces will be available “to continue to train, to assist, to help, and to deal with ISIS as it arises” in the country.
“But we’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission,” Biden added.
For his part, Al-Kadhimi offered thanks to the American people “for all the blood and treasure America has given for a free and democratic Iraq.” Of the changes in military posture, he said that the two countries’ relationship “is stronger than ever.”
U.S. troops haven’t been leading combat missions in Iraq for years. White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier in the day described the move as the first step in a “a change in mission” for American military personnel there.
What exactly will change for troops on the ground in Iraq is unclear.
“I’d refer you to the Joint Statement on the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue,” Army Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman said in a statement. “The Department does not have any operational updates to provide at this time.”
The U.S. “reaffirmed its respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and laws and pledged to continue providing the resources Iraq needs to preserve its territorial integrity,” according to the text of that agreement released by the State Department Monday afternoon. “The Government of Iraq reaffirmed its commitment to protect Coalition personnel advising and enabling the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and reasserted its position that all Coalition Forces are in Iraq at its invitation.”
The two delegations also emphasized that the bases hosting U.S. and other coalition personnel “are Iraqi bases and are operating per existing Iraqi laws; they are not U.S. or Coalition bases, and the presence of international personnel in Iraq is solely in support of the Government of Iraq’s fight against ISIS.”
The delegations decided, following recent technical talks that “the security relationship will fully transition to a training, advising, assisting, and intelligence-sharing role, and that there will be no U.S. forces with a combat role in Iraq by Dec. 31, 2021. The United States intends to continue its support for the [Iraqi security forces], including the Peshmerga, to build their capacity to deal with future threats.”
Biden said even with the shift “we’re committed to our security cooperation. Our shared fight against ISIS is critical for the stability of the region and our counter-terrorism operations will continue.”
All U.S. troops are expected to be out of Afghanistan by the start of September, after Biden in May announced an end to all American military presence there after nearly 20 years.
The White House and Defense Department are also currently conducting a global posture review of all military deployments worldwide, in an effort to make sure that personnel positioning is appropriate.
Iraqi parliamentary elections are slated for this October. Al-Kadhimi’s visit was seen as an effort to strengthen his party’s chances in the upcoming vote, with a significant portion of the Iraqi public pushing for America to downsize its military role in the region.
Nearly 4,600 U.S. troops have died and another nearly 33,000 have been wounded in support of operations in Iraq since the start of 2003, according to Pentagon figures.
Pentagon Bureau Chief Meghann Myers contributed to this report.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.