Pentagon chief goes to Iraq prior to US invasion anniversary
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin landed in Baghdad on Tuesday on an unannounced visit to Iraq. He became the highest-ranking cabinet member from the Biden administration to have ever visited the country.
The defense secretary tweeted that his trip is meant to reaffirm the US-Iraq strategic partnership and lead to a more “secure, stable, and sovereign Iraq.” According to Reuters, Austin’s visit was kept a secret until he landed due to security concerns. The secretary is currently on a multi-nation tour of the region.
Austin’s visit comes just two weeks ahead of the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq that ousted the country’s leader Saddam Hussein and led to two decades of brutal fighting. The 2003 invasion led to the death of between 180,000 to 210,000 civilians, according to the Iraq Body Count project, while the instability caused by the toppling of the Iraqi government and the withdrawal of US forces in 2011 ultimately led to the rise of Islamic State, ISIS and ISIL.
US troops returned to the country in 2014 at the request of the Iraqi government to combat ISIS. However, after the terrorist group was mostly suppressed, the US decided to keep 2,500 of its troops stationed in Iraq and 900 in Syria.
That’s despite the Iraqi parliament voting to expel all foreign troops after the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted at the time that the Iraqi people wanted the US to remain on their soil, and that Washington "will continue to do all the things we need to do to keep America safe.”
According to Reuters, citing an anonymous US Defense official, Austin is expected to tell the Iraqi government during his visit that the US remains committed to retain its forces' presence in the country. “But it's not just about the military instrument. The United States is broadly interested in a strategic partnership with the government of Iraq," he said.
Prior to his trip to Baghdad, Austin also met with Jordan’s King Abdullah ll in that country's capital, Amman. There he warned of “unthinkable” military ties developing between Russia and Iran, and reassured regional allies that Washington remains committed to the Middle East “for the long haul.”
The defense secretary is also expected to visit US allies Egypt and Israel, where he also plans to raise Washington’s concerns over Iran’s ties with Russia, as well as China’s growing interest in the region.