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US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has made a surprise visit to Iraq, his first as part of President Joe Biden’s administration. The visit comes almost 20 years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and created instability that allowed the rise of Islamic State militants after the US withdrew its forces in 2011.

Austin, who was the last commanding general of US forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, stated that the US is committed to maintaining its military presence in Iraq. He said that the US is ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government and that the US will continue to strengthen and broaden its partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability, and sovereignty.

The United States currently has 2,500 troops in Iraq and an additional 900 in Syria, helping to advise and assist local troops in combating Islamic State. While the militant group is no longer as strong as it once was, militant cells have survived across parts of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.

Austin’s trip is also about supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani’s push back against Iranian influence in the country. Iranian-backed militias 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.

Iraqi leaders share the US interest in Iraq not becoming a playground for conflict between the United States and Iran, according to a senior US defense official speaking on condition of anonymity. Austin met with Sudani and 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 Erbil, as well as the lingering acrimony between the two main Kurdish parties running the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.

Austin said that Erbil and Baghdad must work together for the good of all Iraqis and that Kurdish leaders must put aside their divisions and come together to build a secure and prosperous Iraqi Kurdish region. He also condemned Iran’s “repeated cross border attacks” on Iraq. Last year, Tehran fired missiles at bases of Kurdish groups in northern Iraq it accuses of involvement in protests against its restrictions on women, displacing hundreds of Iranian Kurds and killing some.

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.

The US has been involved in Iraq since 1990, when it led a coalition of countries to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Since then, it has been involved in a series of military and diplomatic efforts to stabilize the country, including the imposition of no-fly zones and the establishment of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq in 1991.

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was aimed at removing Saddam Hussein from power and establishing a democratic government in his place. However, the war led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and created instability that paved the way for the rise of Islamic State militants. The US withdrew its forces in 2011, but returned in 2014 to help combat Islamic State

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