About 2,500 U.S. troops still remain in Iraq and there’s no plan to bring them home, the Pentagon confirmed on Thursday.
Department of Defense Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters “there’s no significant posture change in Iraq right now. The numbers are still where it — where they were, which is about 2,500.”
The number of troops deployed in the Middle East has come under question as combat operations there are considered officially ceased, and a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan wrapped up at the end of August. The Biden administration had announced the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would officially end on December 31.
The end of the combat mission doesn’t mean U.S. troops are coming home, however.
Kirby said the U.S. troops remain in Iraq on an invitation basis, though the two nations agreed U.S. troops would “transition the mission to advise, train and assist by the end of this year.” He noted, however, that the physical posture would not change – only the mission would.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command overseeing operations in the Middle East, also told The Associated Press on Thursday that the 2,500 U.S. troops aren’t leaving Iraq for the foreseeable future, despite continued violent attacks from Iran-backed Iraqi militias on bases hosting U.S. troops.
“They actually want all U.S. forces to leave, and all U.S. forces are not going to leave,” McKenzie said, adding that U.S. troops’ continued presence “may provoke a response as we get later into the end of the month.”
McKenzie said as long as the Iraqi government wants U.S. troops there and both nations agree, the troops will remain. He added that unneeded troops have already been condensed down, making fewer potential targets for the militia attacks, but expects the militias to continue to be a threat.
The Iran-backed Iraqi militias are believed to be behind an attempted assassination on Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in November, as well as a number of drone and missile attacks in Syria, where about 900 U.S. troops still remain to support Syrian rebel forces against ISIS terrorists.
“Iran still pursues a vision of ejecting us,” McKenzie said. “And they see the principal battleground for that as being in Iraq. And I believe they are under the view that they can increase friction in Iraq to where we will leave.”
As many as 80,000 U.S. troops were postured in the Middle East last year. With the conclusion of the War in Afghanistan, the U.S. is now turning its attention to adversaries China and Russia, which pose the top threats and pacing challenges for the U.S.