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US, Iraq to hold talks over American troop presence

AP , Tuesday 23 Mar 2021
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The Biden administration is set to resume strategic talks with Iraqi officials next month on the withdrawal of remaining U.S. combat forces in the country and other matters related to the bilateral relationship.

The talks, which began in June under the Trump administration, would be the first under Biden, who assumed office in January. The discussions are meant to shape the future of the U.S.-Iraq relationship and will touch security, trade, climate and more, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The official added that the U.S. intended to use the meetings to clarify that coalition forces remain in the country ``at the invitation of the Iraqi government and solely for the purpose of training and advising Iraqi forces`` and to ensure that the terror group ISIS ``cannot reconstitute.``

Iraqi officials confirmed they had sent a formal request to President Joe Biden's administration for a date to resume strategic talks on bilateral relations and the withdrawal of remaining U.S. combat forces, Iraqi officials said Tuesday.

Relations between the two countries have been fraught with tension, particularly following the U.S. airstrike in January 2020 that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis just outside the Baghdad airport.

Outraged, Iraqi lawmakers, spurred by Shiite political factions, passed a non-binding resolution to oust U.S.-led coalition forces from the country following the attack.

Relations have improved since Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi took over the helm of Iraq's government in May. But some parties, notably parliament's Iran-backed Fatah bloc, continue to call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

So far, two sessions of strategic talks have been held _ in June and August. Among the issues on the agenda laid out ahead of the talks were the presence of U.S. troops in the country, militia groups acting outside of state authority and Iraq's dire economic crisis. The U.S. blames Iran-backed Shiite Iraqi militias for numerous attacks targeting U.S. personnel and interests in Iraq.

According to three government officials, Iraq had recently sent an official memo to the U.S. requesting a date for a new round of discussions on bilateral relations and specifically, the withdrawal of remaining combat forces.

The memo was given to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Mathew Tueller earlier this month, they said, adding the Iraqis hope to have the discussion in April. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Iraqi and U.S. officials have said they support a scheduled withdrawal of forces from Iraq, but questions remain over time-frames and the scope of the threat posed by the Islamic State group.

According to the Pentagon, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has dropped to about 2,500 over the past months.

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