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US On-Again Off-Again Partial Troop Withdrawal From Iraq: On Again?

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US On-Again Off-Again Partial Troop Withdrawal From Iraq: On Again?

US military bases and coalition forces in Iraq as of January 2020. Source: Anadolu Agency

There are plans for an official US troop reduction in Iraq. A partial reduction may or may not eventuate. Given that thousands of troops can be returned by the US within a matter of hours at any time, a more important question than how many troops (and uncounted contractors) officially remain, is where are they deployed, what hardware do they have, what are their objectives, what are they doing on the ground (and in the air), and, most importantly, when are they going to leave (as demanded by the unanimous resolution of the Iraqi parliament earlier this year)?

The first official figures from the Trump Administration on the Iraq drawdown were disclosed on Friday, with officials now saying that the 5,200 US troops there currently will be cut to about 3,500 in the next two to three months.

That’s about a third of the US troops in Iraq, though there are almost certainly more than 5,200 US troops in Iraq now. The US has not kept public figures on troop levels for months, and 5,200 is the maximum allowed by the US-Iraq agreement. When more troops were sent, the official figure always remained 5,200.

For example, the New York Times reported in January of this year:

“As of December, there were about 6,000 United States troops deployed in Iraq, which is a fraction of the peak number of 150,000 military personnel who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which lasted from 2003 to 2011. After General Suleimani’s death, the Iraqi Parliament voted to expel American troops from the country, which Mr. Trump then said would be met with sanctions.” LINK

US On-Again Off-Again Partial Troop Withdrawal From Iraq: On Again?

Major US military bases during the occupation of Iraq

According to a report by ABC News, after a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi in Baghdad in June, General Kenneth McKenzie told ABC News it appeared Iraq wanted to keep a US, NATO and coalition presence there long term.

McKenzie has said several times this year that it was possible the US troop presence in Iraq could be reduced as the Iraqi military continued making progress. But he also said the size of any troop reduction would be a decision made by the White House.

Trump ordered a total U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria last fall during Turkey’s invasion into northern Syria, but he was convinced to keep troops in eastern Syria to protect Kurdish oil fields from ISIS. About 500 US troops remain, in a southern outpost close to the border with Jordan (al Tanf).

This time, the US plans to reduce troop levels in Iraq from about 5,200 to 3,200, a US official stated to ABC News.

Although officially at about 5,200 since late 2016, that figure actually was a bit higher because of troop rotations and other factors.

The process for the drawdown has already begun, but the official that spoke with the ABC media agency did not elaborate on how long it would take to complete. LINK

The media news site American Conservative commented of the latest announcement:

“Most foreign policy analysts, other than the neoconservative war enthusiasts who dominated Bush administration decision-making, recognize that America’s unjustified aggression (against Iraq) was a horrid bungle.

The U.S. broke international law, vilified European allies, wrecked Iraq, triggered sectarian war, victimized religious minorities, and empowered Iran. The human toll was hideous: Washington’s war killed thousands of Americans, wounded tens of thousands of U.S. personnel, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and displaced millions of Iraqis. The invasion spawned murderous al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the even more brutal Islamic State…

Washington’s treatment of Iraq as occupied territory may be even more shocking. When the Iraqi parliament voted in January to request the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the administration flatly refused. The State Department sounds like the British colonial office: “At this time, any delegation sent to Iraq would be dedicated to discussing how best to recommit to our strategic partnership—not to discuss troop withdrawal.” The president even threatened to impose sanctions on Baghdad…”

Following his recent meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, President Donald Trump said: “We have been taking our troops out of Iraq fairly rapidly, and we look forward to the day when we don’t have to be there.” He added: “We’ll be leaving shortly…” Pompeo said that would be “as soon as we can complete the mission.” In Afghanistan and Syria the president similarly pushed withdrawals against strong resistance within his administration…” LINK

It is clear that the US administration and the Pentagon intend to stay in Iraq for a long time yet, and the Congress will do nothing to force them to withdraw all US military forces from Iraq as demanded by Iraq’s national parliament at the start of this year. While facts on the matter are notoriously vague and/ or unreliable, at least four military bases remain central in the US military presence in Iraq.

US On-Again Off-Again Partial Troop Withdrawal From Iraq: On Again?

Al-Assad and Erbil bases were targeted by Iran’s reprisal attack earlier this year

Presumably there is also more than one clandestine airstrip located throughout the country, whether operated by the Pentagon directly or outsourced to contractors, which would go a long way to explaining the frequent ‘mystery’ airstrikes (though of course, some or all could also be from aircraft and/ or missiles from neighbouring countries – Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE, …)

In January, Anadolu Agency reported:

“Seventeen years after invading Iraq in March 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime, the U.S. currently has a total of nine military bases in the country. Although the U.S. withdrew many of its forces from Iraq in 2011, it strengthened its presence in the country through military bases.

Roughly 5,000 U.S. troops have remained deployed in Iraq since the U.S. cobbled a coalition together in 2014 with the stated aim of fighting the terrorist group Daesh/ISIS.

The U.S. has two military bases in the capital Baghdad — Camp Victory Army Base at Baghdad International Airport and al-Taji Military Base, which has been used for training Iraqi forces.

Washington also has two military bases in the western Anbar province – Habbaniyah Air Base and Ain al-Asad Air Base, which were used actively during the anti-Daesh campaign in 2014.

U.S. troops also use Balad Air Base in the northern Saladin province.

The U.S. also has Qayyara Military Base in Mosul and the K1 Military Base in Kirkuk.

Harir Air Base … is among the bases where U.S. troops are deployed in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. Harir is seen as very safe for the U.S. as it is located in an area where the Daesh/ISIS threat is less potent than other parts of Iraq.

The Harir base is also strategically important given that it is the closest U.S. military base to the Syrian border. Another U.S. military base is located at Erbil Airport.

The United Kingdom does not have military bases in Iraq, but it currently has 400 military personnel there. The total number of UK soldiers and civilian personnel is estimated at around 1,400, including additional deployments made to combat Daesh.

France currently employs 300 military training staff in Iraq.” LINK

Early in April the US-led Coalition announced their official withdrawal from the Al-Taqadam Airbase (also referred to as Al-Habbaniyah Base) in Iraq’s Nineveh Governorate, where approximately 500 coalition personnel has been stationed.

Iraqi forces also recovered another military site that was partially controlled by the US Coalition forces in the Nineveh Governorate. Also:

“In late March, the coalition mission also returned the site it had controlled at Qayyara Air Force Base, south of Mosul, in northern Iraq, to the ​​Iraqi forces.

Over the last few weeks, the U.S. has withdrawn from five bases in Iraq and moved their forces to larger installations like the Harir Base in Erbil and ‘Ain Al-Assad Airbase’ in Al-Anbar.” LINK

The main four remaining US military bases are Ain Al-Assad Airbase, Balad Airbase, Harir Air Base, and the Victory Base Complex. The US has deployed Patriot batteries to the Harir and Ain Al-Assad bases

The Victory Base Complex is an amalgam of military installations around the Baghdad International Airport. The complex includes 10 bases – Victory Fuel Point, Slayer, Striker, Cropper, Liberty, Radwaniyah Palace, Dublin, Sather Air Base, Logistics Base Seitz and Victory. The most important installation is Camp Victory, which hosts the headquarters for all the US operations in Iraq. The camp also includes the Al Faw Palace.

The Ain Al-Assad Airbase is located in Anbar Province towards the west of Iraq, about 160 kms west of Baghdad and a bit over 200 kms from the Syrian border. According to the wikipedia entry on Al-Assad Airbase:

“The base was originally named Qadisiyah Airbase, a reference to the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (c. 636). Qadisiyah AB was one of five new air bases built in Iraq as part of their Project ‘Super-Base’, launched in 1975 as a response to the lessons learned during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973.

The base was built sometime between 1981 and 1987 by a consortium of Yugoslavian companies under contract to the government of Iraq. Two Yugoslav government agencies led the project…

The US$280,000,000 project at Qadisiyah AB included accommodation for 5,000 personnel and the necessary infrastructure including public facilities (mosques, outdoor and indoor Olympic swimming pool, football field, sports hall, cinema, library, elementary school, high school, hospital and clinic) and fortified military facilities (military airport, shelters for personnel and equipment, shelters for bombers and fighters and military barracks). The hardened aircraft shelters (were) built here and throughout Iraq by the Yugoslavs…

The airbase continues to be used by coalition forces in Iraq, including British troops. In 2016 it was announced that the UK would send 250 more troops to be stationed at Al Asad base…” LINK

A patriot battery was deployed to the base in March 2020

US On-Again Off-Again Partial Troop Withdrawal From Iraq: On Again?

Aerial view of Ain al-Assad air base in the western Anbar desert

The base probably serves a wide range of functions. Late last year Almasdar news agency reported:

“A massive U.S. military convoy reportedly arrived in western Iraq this week amid recent attacks carried out near their installations inside the country.

According to Al-Sumaria TV, the U.S. military convoy consisted of 500 vehicles that entered Iraq from neighbouring Jordan.

The US military convoy reportedly reached the their final destination at the ‘Ayn Al-Assad Base in Iraq’s Al-Anbar province.” LINK

Late last week, another large military convoy was reported:

“SOHR activists have monitored nearly 50 trucks affiliated to the International Coalition crossing into Syria today, via Al-Walid border crossing with Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The trucks, carrying military and logistical supplies, headed to Tal Baydar military base in the north-western countryside of Al-Hasakah.

On August 22, Observatory activists monitored a US military convoy crossing into Syria, via Al-Walid border crossing with Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The convoy, comprised several military armoured vehicles and 40 trucks carrying tanks, military and logistical supplies, headed to Al-Shaddadi base and other military bases in Al-Hasakah province.” LINK

According to the wikipedia entry:

“Balad Air Base is an Iraqi Air Force base located near Balad in the Sunni Triangle 40 miles (64 km) north of Baghdad, Iraq.

Built in the early 1980s it was originally named Al-Bakr Air Base. In 2003 the base was occupied by the United States Armed Forces as part of the Iraq War and called both Balad Air Base by the United States Air Force and Anaconda Logistical Support Area (LSA) by the United States Army before being renamed Joint Base Balad on 15 June 2008. The base was handed back to the Iraqi Air Force on 8 November 2011 during the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, after which it returned to being called Balad Air Base… During the Iraq War it was the second largest U.S. base in Iraq and today is home to the Iraqi Air Force…

Joint Base Balad had a burn pit operation as late as the summer of 2010. The pit, which was visible for miles, was in continuous use which resulted in 147 tons of waste burnt per day, some of which was considered toxic. Respiratory difficulties and headaches were attributed to smoke inhalation from the burnt waste; however, according to research conducted on behalf of the US Department of Veteran Affairs, there is insufficient evidence to connect those symptoms to burn pits…” LINK

In January this year the Independent reported that eight rockets landed on the Balad airbase. At least four Iraqi personnel were injured in the attack, including two officers. The Independent commented:

“It was not immediately clear how many US and coalition troops were being housed on the base at the time of the attack. The strike on the Balad airbase followed an attack on two other bases housing US and coalition troops carried out by Iran earlier this month.” LINK

Another review of Balad Air Base comments that the base can host more than 36,000 individuals in considerable comfort. Prior to its takeover by the US it had been the Iraqi Air Force’s most important operational base. During the peak of US military activity in Iraq, it hosted about 28,000 military personnel and more than 8,000 civilian contractors. It has some of the most advanced facilities of all the military bases in Iraq, and also possesses four hardened aircraft shelters constructed by work crews from Yugoslavia in the 1980s. At the height of the US occupation it hosted the 332-nd Air Expeditionary Wing and the 310-th Sustainment Command, among other units, and it played a key role in the US’ military operations.

Camp Taji, which the US military recently abandoned, is located in the immediate proximity of Baghdad, about 30 km from the city, and was not an important installation for the foreign occupation forces.

Supposedly there for ‘training and assistance’ purposes and to pursue scattered ISIS remnants, the US military has consolidated its control over Iraq’s most important military infrastructure and clearly intends to continue doing so. Coupled with Iraq’s ongoing failure to secure complete radar coverage of its airspace and effective anti-air defences, whether the US has 3,000, 5,000 or 50,000 troops in the country it remains the dominant military force in Iraq in many respects.

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