BAGHDAD (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit Tuesday to the Iraqi capital where he vowed to continue the fight against the Islamic State group until the extremists are defeated.
Austin, whose visit came just days before the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, said in statement later that he held talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and Defense Minister Thabet Muhammad Al-Abbasi.
Austin was greeted on touchdown in Baghdad by Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, the U.S. commander in Iraq, which is home to hundreds of American troops helping in the fight against the militant Islamic State group.
“We’ll continue working to accomplish this mission together. Through the global coalition to defeat Daesh, we liberated more than 50,000 square kilometers from Daesh and freed more than 4.5 million Iraqis from their cruel grip,” Austin said, using an Arabic name for IS.
Austin also said that U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of its government, adding that these forces are operating in a non-combat and advisory role in support of the “Iraqi-led fight against terrorism.”
“This is a critical mission and we’re proud to support our Iraqi partners,” said Austin, one of the most senior Biden administration officials to visit Iraq in recent years.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that removed longtime dictator Saddam from power, Iraq has been a point of friction between the United States and Iran. Tehran has widely expanded its influence in Iraq over the past 20 years.
“I’m here to reaffirm the U.S.-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable, and sovereign Iraq,” Austin tweeted upon arrival.
“We continue to believe that Iraq’s greater integration with its Arab partners in the region will deliver increased stability, security and prosperity, and it will pay dividends not only for Iraqi citizens, but for all people of the region,” Austin said, referring to Iraq’s improving its relations with Arab countries.
Despite their defeat in Iraq in 2017, IS militants and their sleeper cells are still launching attacks in the country, as well as in neighboring Syria. IS has killed and wounded dozens of Iraqi troops over the past months.
In a related issue, the U.S. has been urging countries around the world to repatriate their citizens from al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, home to tens of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis crowded into tents in the fenced-in camp. Nearly 20,000 of them are children; most of the rest are women, wives and widows of IS fighters.
A separate, heavily guarded section of the camp known as the annex houses an additional 10,000 people — including 2,000 women from 57 other countries, considered the most die-hard IS supporters, along with about 8,000 of their children.
Iraq has repatriated more than 500 women and children from al-Hol over the past few weeks.
“Military action alone won’t ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh,” Austin added. “So let me recognize the Iraqi government’s ongoing repatriations of Iraqi citizens from northeast Syria.”
Reading from a statement to gathered reporters, Austin said all countries with citizens in the detention facilities and displaced persons camps in northeast Syria “must take similar steps.” He said the U.S. stands ready to continue supporting Iraq and all countries working to repatriate their citizens.
The U.S. defense secretary did not take questions.
“We are focused on the mission of defeating Daesh, and we are here for no other purpose. Any threats or attacks on our forces only undermine that mission,” Austin said, apparently referring to Iran-backed fighters who were blamed for attacks on facilities housing U.S. troops in Iraq.
Austin said that he spoke with Iraqi leaders about the long term vision “for our defense partnership with Iraq, which will outlast Daesh.”
Mroue reported from Beirut.