WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is reducing its troop presence in Iraq this month from 5,200 to 3,000, the top American commander for the Middle East said Wednesday, as President Donald Trump tries to make good on his campaign promise to get America out of “endless wars."
During a visit to Iraq, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said the reduction in Iraq reflects the Trump administration's confidence in the ability of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces to handle the militant threat from the Islamic State group, which entered Iraq from Syria in 2014.
The move also comes as Trump faces criticism for allegedly denigrating American war dead as “losers” and “suckers." He has denied the allegation, first reported by The Atlantic magazine last week, which surfaced at a time of heightened tension in his relationship with the military. Trump added to the perception of a growing split with Pentagon leaders when he said on Monday that they want to fight wars to boost the profits of defense companies.
A senior administration official told reporters aboard Air Force One late Tuesday that an announcement on the withdrawal of additional troops from Afghanistan also could be expected in the coming days. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly before the formal announcement.
Trump has been trying to make the case that he has fulfilled the promises he made four years ago as he campaigns for a second term.
U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001. They invaded Iraq in 2003 and left in 2011 but returned in 2014 after the Islamic State group overran large parts of Iraq. In June, McKenzie announced that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan had dropped to 8,600, the level that the U.S. agreed to in a February peace with the the Taliban that also calls on the U.S. to withdraw entirely by next spring.
“In recognition of the great progress the Iraqi forces have made and in consultation and coordination with the government of Iraq and our coalition partners, the United States has decided to reduce our troop presence in Iraq from about 5,200 to 3,000 troops during the month of September," McKenzie said during his Iraq visit, according to an excerpt of his remarks provided by his office.
McKenzie said the remaining U.S. troops would continue advising and assisting Iraqi security forces as they attempt to root out remnants of the Islamic State group, sometimes called ISIS.
“The U.S. decision is a clear demonstration of our continued commitment to the ultimate goal, which is an Iraqi security force that is capable of preventing an ISIS resurgence and of securing Iraq’s sovereignty without external assistance,” McKenzie said. “The journey has been difficult, the sacrifice has been great, but the progress has been significant.”
Although Trump has talked of withdrawing completely from Iraq, Pentagon officials have cautioned that a U.S. troop presence remains necessary to guard against an IS resurgence and to help the Iraqi government limit the political and military influence of Iran, which supports militias operating inside Iraq.
Trump aides have faulted the Obama administration for having pulled out of Iraq too soon in 2011 but say the time is now right.
“This is a president, when he says I'm going to end endless wars, it's not a slogan like it's been for Democrats and past presidents,” Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday on Fox News.
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 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.