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US defense secretary pays surprise visit to Iraq

Posted by / February 13, 2019

The acting defense secretary of the United States, Patrick M. Shanahan, arrived in Baghdad yesterday for a ‘surprise visit’ to the Iraqi capital. He met with Iraqi leaders to discuss American troop involvement in the region and future strategies against the Islamic State. One of the topics of conversation was over what remains of the former Caliphate in both Iraq and Syria. The news was broken by the New York Times earlier today.

The surprise visit comes after President Trump requested that U.S. troops return home from Syria calling their mission “finished.” However, there has not yet been a formal request to withdraw these troops. There are also lingering questions over how many of these troops would come home, and whether or not some of them should be moved to bases in Iraq to monitor Syrian insurgents after leaving.

A Permanent Presence in Iraq?

The future of the U.S. military in the Middle East seems tenuous and uncertain at best. In an interview President Trump gave this month, he suggested that American troops could stay in Iraq to “keep watch” on Iran. The Trump administration sees Iran as the main adversary in the region and believes them to be pushing for more influence within Iraq and Syria.

However, many Iraqis do not see this the same way. In fact, many are outraged over Iraq being used as a base of operations to monitor and possibly attack Iran. Many Iraqis, who are Shi’ites, see it as counter to their interests and as an imposition.

The Pentagon, though, has attempted to calm these concerns by reiterating that Iraq and Iran are still in a common partnership to defeat the Islamic State. The Iraq Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Medhi, has also confirmed this and has said that such a relationship is necessary given current concerns.

There are not many troops left in Syria, however: only around 2,000 Americans are actively deployed in the country, and many of them are embedded within localities as special forces. Most are fighting alongside Kurdish soldiers in Syria which the Kurds see as strategically necessary. Although the Islamic State’s territory has significantly shrunk in the past year or so, they still remain a threat within Syria and neighboring states.

President Trump’s plan is to allow other groups within Syria to do the fighting for the United States: namely Turkey, Russia, and the Kurds who are all fighting together, by necessity, against the Islamic State and other insurgents. However, the situation may prove difficult given that each group has separate aims. For example, Turkey remains completely opposed to Kurdish self-determination and its independent aspirations.

Mr. Shanahan did not say publically what will happen to the current American troops in Syria. However, he did say that any and all support needed to the Syrian Kurdish resistance will be given, but the question remains whether or not American troops will simply just relocate to Iraq for the time being.

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