“This reduced footprint allows us to continue advising and assisting our Iraqi partners in rooting out the final remnants of ISIS in Iraq and ensuring its enduring defeat,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said.
McKenzie said the decision is due to the United States’ “confidence in the Iraqi Security Forces’ increased ability to operate independently.”
A senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday to also expect an announcement on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in a couple days.
In recent months, training and advising of Iraqi forces has been scaled back due to the coronavirus, and other coalition allies have also withdrawn their troops.
In March, US forces began pulling back from bases across Iraq, turning them over to Iraqi security partners. At the time, Pentagon officials insisted that the base hand-offs were part of a long-planned consolidation that reflected the success of the anti-ISIS fight — not concerns over the ongoing rocket attacks by Iran-linked proxy militias.
“The threat against our forces from Shiite militant groups has caused us to put resources that we would otherwise use against ISIS to provide for our own defense and that has lowered our ability to work effectively against them,” McKenzie said in late August.
On Wednesday, McKenzie reiterated that justification, saying that Iraqi security forces had improved their ability to fight ISIS and that “the fact that we’re getting smaller is actually a sign of campaign progress.”
But the CENTCOM commander also explicitly linked the withdrawals to the threat from Iran.
“Over the last seven or eight months, we have had to devote resources to self-protection that we would otherwise devote for the counter-ISIS fight and we’ve had to pull back and our partners have had to pull back,” he said. “At the same time we’ve done things to harden our positions to make it more difficult for Iran to attack us in Iraq — but it has had an effect.”
This story has been updated.