Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Tuesday nearly 20 years after a U.S.-led invasion in the region took down Saddam Hussein.
A senior defense official said the trip was designed to show the U.S. was committed to maintaining its military presence in the country.
“What [Iraqis] will hear from him is commitment to retaining our force presence, but it’s not just about the military instrument. The United States is broadly interested in a strategic partnership with the government of Iraq,” the official told reporters.
Austin is the most senior official in the Biden administration to visit Iraq. He was the last commanding general of U.S. forces in the country after the invasion.
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“I’m here to reaffirm the U.S.-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable, and sovereign Iraq,” Austin said on Tuesday.
The U.S. has 2,500 troops in Iraq and another 900 in Syria to support local troops in combating Islamic State militants who had seized large portions of territory in 2014 in both countries.
The trip was also made to support Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani’s efforts against Iranian influence in the country.
Iranian-backed militia in Iraq targeted U.S. forces and its embassy in Baghdad with rockets in the past.
The U.S. and Iran neared a full-blown conflict in 2020 after the U.S. killed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ top commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike.
“I think that Iraqi leaders share our interest in Iraq not becoming a playground for conflict between the United States and Iran,” the defense official said.
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Austin will meet Sudani and President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, amid a long-running dispute over budget transfers and oil revenue sharing between the national government and the Kurdish government.
Reuters contributed to this report