The long-planned trims, which would cut the number nearly in half, maintain a U.S. counterterrorism force in Iraq but help fulfill President Trump’s goal to reduce overseas deployments.
The United States is cutting troop levels in Iraq nearly in half, to 3,000 forces, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said on Wednesday, in a long-expected move that will help fulfill President Trump’s goal of reducing the Pentagon’s overseas deployments.
The decision to reduce the 5,200 troops now in Iraq comes three weeks after Mr. Trump met in Washington with Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister, in part to complete details of the drawdown, which will happen this month.
“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. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of the military’s Central Command, said in remarks in Iraq on Wednesday.
General McKenzie, who last month signaled the impending troop cuts, said improvements in the Iraqi military’s campaign against the Islamic State enabled the Pentagon to make the additional troop cuts.
“This decision is due to our confidence in the Iraqi security forces’ increased ability to operate independently,” General McKenzie said.
The move comes eight weeks before the November presidential election and allows Mr. Trump to tell voters he is fulfilling a campaign promise to bring home the troops.
But the cuts pale in comparison to the much larger reductions from when U.S. force levels in the country peaked at more than 150,000 service members at the height of the Iraq war.
General McKenzie said in an interview later Wednesday that the Pentagon was also still on track, as previously announced, to drop to about 4,500 troops in Afghanistan this fall, from roughly 8,600 forces now.
In addition, more than 700 American troops remain in Syria, mostly in the country’s northeast to help Syrian Kurdish allies combat ISIS guerrilla fighters and protect oil fields in that region, which are coveted by President Bashar al-Assad.
Some officials warn that the remaining American troops in Syria are more vulnerable to attack after cuts Mr. Trump ordered last fall, and point to a clash with Russian troops in the northeast last month that left seven American soldiers injured. General McKenzie called that episode, in which a Russian armored vehicle rammed an American ground patrol, “reckless.”
Analysts of military policy also note that even as Mr. Trump has withdrawn several thousand troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, he has ordered nearly twice that many, about 14,000 forces, to the Persian Gulf region in the past year or so in response to Iranian attacks and provocations.
At any given time, 45,000 to 65,000 American troops are in the region, spread out between Jordan and Oman, assigned to operate airfields, run key headquarters, sail warships and fly warplanes, and stage for deployments to places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers change substantially depending on the presence of an aircraft carrier strike group or two in the region, and whether a large group of Marines is afloat in those waters.
Mr. Trump has long vowed to withdraw all U.S. forces from both Iraq and Syria. “We’re bringing them home from Syria. We’re bringing them home from Iraq,” he said on “Fox & Friends” last month. “These endless wars, they never stop.”
In a meeting with journalists after the White House gathering last month, Mr. al-Kadhimi reaffirmed the need for American military assistance in fighting remnants of the Islamic State.
“ISIS sleeper cells are still operating in Iraq,” said Mr. al-Kadhimi, a former chief of Iraqi intelligence, speaking through an interpreter. “The threat is still there.”
Indeed, the Islamic State in Iraq is still able to wage a low-tech, low-cost, largely rural — and lethal — campaign, American and Iraqi counterterrorism officials say. While ISIS has not carried out attacks on the scale that it did a few years ago, the number of attacks began to grow again this year.
A United Nations assessment last month estimated that the Islamic State still has more than 10,000 fighters operating in Iraq and Syria.
The Pentagon is reluctant to keep more than the absolute minimum of troops in Iraq because they have been attacked by Iranian-backed militias. An attack on an Iraqi base in March killed three soldiers of the American-led military coalition there, two of them Americans, and wounded 14.
Since then, the United States has consolidated its troops on fewer bases, a repositioning that General McKenzie acknowledged last month had diverted resources from fighting ISIS. Separately, the training mission has been suspended for the past several months because of concerns about the coronavirus.
Drawing down to 3,000 troops would bring American force levels in Iraq roughly back to where they were in 2015 when the United States was in the early phase of its campaign against the Islamic State, which took over one-third of the country.
General McKenzie said on Wednesday that the remaining American forces in Iraq included those operating Patriot missile batteries and other defenses against attacks from Iran or Iranian-backed militias.
“We have what we need to maintain a rough deterrence against Iran,” he said in telephone interview with a small group of journalists from an undisclosed Middle Eastern country.
The Pentagon had previously advised Mr. Trump that a small contingent — roughly 3,000 troops — should remain to advise and assist the Iraqi government in its fight against pockets of Islamic State fighters and to act as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq, where skirmishes between the United States and Iran have played out.
Other members of the 29-country, American-led military coalition in Iraq have already cut their numbers in half, to about 1,200 troops, largely because of the pandemic, which has suspended most training.
In his conversation with reporters, Mr. al-Kadhimi avoided the question of how long and precisely how many U.S. troops should stay in Iraq, saying conditions on the ground would dictate that. But he underscored that the role of American forces in the country had already shifted from combat patrols to higher-level training.
In Baghdad on Wednesday, Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji, a spokesman for Iraqi joint operations, said, “The reduction of the number of U.S. forces comes within the framework of the agreement between the Iraqi government and the international coalition according to a timetable set by the two sides for the purpose of handing over the sites as well as withdrawing.”
Mr. al-Kadhimi, who assumed his post in May after widespread antigovernment protests and amid the coronavirus pandemic and persistent joblessness, is largely viewed as a transitional leader to steer his country through a period of major economic and social upheaval.
His appointment also came during a political backlash that surged after a U.S. drone strike killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a top Iranian officer, at Baghdad International Airport in January. That resulted in a vote by Iraq’s Parliament demanding that all U.S. troops leave the country.
While it was not up to Parliament to force any withdrawal — only the prime minister could do that under the agreement in force between the two countries — it created strong political pressure.
The move was backed not only by politicians close to Iran but by others who were outraged that the drone strike also killed the leader of the Hashd al-Shaabi, who was widely viewed as mostly keeping under control the fractious armed groups, some of whom did Iran’s bidding and are predominantly Shiite, that make up the organization.
It is unlikely that a reduction of less than half the total number of U.S. troops now in the country will satisfy those who have called for a complete pullout. Conversely, a U.S. contingent so small will most likely worry those who see the United States and its European allies as a required force for stability and a key to keeping both Iranian-backed militias and the Islamic State in check.