US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Tuesday in a visit aimed at showing that Washington was committed to keeping its military presence there nearly 20 years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The 2003 invasion killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and led to instability that eventually paved the way for the rise of Islamic State militants after the US withdrew its forces in 2011.
Austin, the most senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq, was the last commanding general of US forces there after the invasion.
"I'm here to reaffirm the US-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable, and sovereign Iraq," Austin said.
The United States currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq - and an additional 900 in Syria - to help advise and assist local troops in combating Islamic State, who in 2014 seized swathes of territory in 2014 in both countries.
"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," a senior US defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters.
Islamic State is far from the formidable force it once was, but militant cells have survived across parts of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.
The trip is also about supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani's push back against Iranian influence in the country, former officials and experts said.
Iranian-backed militia in Iraq have occasionally targeted US forces and its embassy in Baghdad with rockets. The United States and Iran came close to full-blown conflict in 2020 after US forces killed Iran's Revolutionary Guards commander General 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.
Austin will meet Sudani as well as the 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 Kurdish government.
Former President George W Bush’s administration cited its belief that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s government held weapons of mass destruction to justify the decision to invade Iraq. US and allied forces later found that such stockpiles did not exist.
Between 185,000 and 208,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the war, according to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.
Austin, a former head of all US forces in the Middle East, said in 2011 that the United States had achieved its military objectives in Iraq.
But under former President Barack Obama, the United States sent thousands of troops back into Iraq and Syria three years later to bolster the fight against Islamic State.
Retired US Marine Corp General Frank McKenzie, who headed American forces in the Middle East until last year, said Austin's trip showed Washington's commitment to the country after what he said were previous mistakes.
"It reflects a more mature US approach to Iraq after the disastrous decision to withdraw late in the Obama administration, and that was a disastrous decision," McKenzie said.