US troops and coalition forces may stay in Iraq even after Islamic State terrorists are totally defeated, the top US commander in Iraq stated on Tuesday, just one day after Mosul was officially declared liberated from the terrorist group.
Iraq’s second largest city was retaken following an eight-month-long operation mounted by Iraqi government troops and US–allied Kurdish Peshmerga fighters with air support from the US-led coalition.
“The Iraqi government has expressed an interest in having the US forces and coalition forces remain after the defeat of ISIS [Islamic State, IS, formerly ISIL]. Our government is equally interested in that,” coalition commander General Stephen Townsend said during a video conference, adding that other coalition members may join the mission as it is “still in the decision-making stages.”
The troop levels are not going to be changed in the near future, according to the general.
“So this fight is far from over. So I wouldn’t expect to see any significant change in our troop levels in the immediate future, because there’s still hard work to be done,” he said.
However, the commander speculated that “a future footprint would be smaller and probably use a subset of the bases that we have today.”
The US’ combat mission in Iraq ended in 2011, after which most American troops left, but some of the contingent remained as advisors to the Iraqi army. During Islamic State’s advance in 2014, the Iraqi military was unable stop the terrorists and such a situation should arise again, the US commander said.
“All of us can look back to the end of 2011 when the US and coalition forces left Iraq the last time, and saw what played out in the intervening three years. I don’t think we want to replay that,” Townsend said speaking via video link from Baghdad.
Meanwhile, Townsend stated that Iraq’s future depends more on political reconciliation than military intervention, adding that it is necessary for all citizens to recognize the current government.
“What will happen after the defeat of ISIS rides not on whether there’s a coalition presence or not, in my view, but predominantly rides on whether there’s a political reconciliation,” Townsend said. “And we’ve got to make sure – the Iraqis have to make sure after ISIS is defeated, that all Iraqis view the government in Baghdad as their government,” he said.
The operation to retake Mosul, which was an IS stronghold for a long time, has left most of the city in ruins, led to thousands of civilian casualties, and displaced around a million people. Iraqi and US-led forces have been repeatedly blamed for causing civilian casualties during the operation.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday that “no conditions were created to allow civilians leave in an organized way,” which may have led to “an increased number of victims.” Amnesty International also issued a damning report slamming the US-led coalition in Mosul for errant and excessive airstrikes, while urging it to publicly admit its failure to protect civilians.