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Pentagon chief, on surprise trip, says US troops to stay in Iraq

In Baghdad, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pledges continued US troops in the fight against IS.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made an unannounced trip to Iraq, saying the United States is determined to maintain its military presence in the country and continue the fight against ISIL (ISIS).

The Pentagon chief’s trip to Baghdad on Tuesday came just before the 20th anniversary of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, the toppling of leader Saddam Hussein and the unleashing of troops paving the way for the rise of ISIL.

The US withdrew its troops in 2011, but the administration of former President Barack Obama sent thousands of soldiers back to Iraq and neighboring Syria three years later to strengthen the fight against IS.

Currently, the US has 2,500 soldiers in Iraq and 900 in Syria to advise and assist local troops in the fight against ISIL, which seized parts of territory in both countries in 2014.

Despite their territorial defeat in Iraq at the end of 2017, ISIL fighters continue to carry out attacks in the country and in Syria. ISIL attacks have killed and wounded dozens of Iraqi soldiers in recent months.

“We are focused on the mission to defeat Daesh (ISIL), and we are here for no other purpose,” Austin said. “Any threat or attack against our forces will only undermine that mission,” he added, apparently referring to Iran-backed fighters being blamed for attacks on facilities housing US troops in Iraq.

Austin, the highest-ranking official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq in recent years, was the last commanding general of US forces there after the invasion.

“U.S. troops are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq,” Austin told reporters after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani and Defense Minister Thabet Muhammad Al-Abbasi.

He said these forces operate in a non-combat and advisory role in support of the “Iraq-led fight against terrorism”.

“The United States will continue to strengthen and broaden our partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability and sovereignty,” he said.

Al-Sudani’s office, meanwhile, said he and Austin have discussed cooperation between their countries in the fight against IS.

The Prime Minister reaffirmed his government’s willingness to strengthen and consolidate relations with the United States of America at various levels and areas.