U.S. Shuts Down Ground Forces Office in Iraq, as Combat Against Islamic State Ends
CAIRO — The headquarters coordinating the activities of American ground forces in Iraq closed down on Monday, marking the end of major combat operations against the Islamic State, said U.S. officials.
Deactivating the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command in Baghdad also signifies “the changing composition and responsibilities of the Coalition” to defeat Islamic State, according to the United States Central Command statement.
About 5,000 American ground forces were stationed in Iraq at the height of the war against the Islamic State that culminated with the reclaiming of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the self-declared capital of the militants in the country.
The ground troops were there to advise, equip and assist Iraq’s military during the grueling three year fight to claw back the one-third of Iraqi territory that the Islamic State had claimed. They were not involved in active combat but were often seen near field command centers around Mosul, operating surveillance drones or coordinating battlefield logistics with Iraqi commanders.
Since Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared the Islamic State completely defeated last December, American forces have been gradually drawing down while shifting their tasks to the training of Iraqi forces in intelligence gathering and policing, as the militants returned to their more traditional tactics of insurgent attacks.
It is not clear how many American forces remain in the country. Their presence has been a wedge issue in Iraq’s national elections scheduled for May. Abadi has said he wants the troops to stay to facilitate the rehabilitation of Iraq’s security forces while his opponents in the influential Shiite militias — some of which are aligned with Iran — have demanded the Americans leave immediately.
A spokesman for Abadi has declined to say how many U.S. troops the prime minister sees as appropriate for the mission of ensuring the Islamic State does not rebuild itself.
American officials have also kept the numbers of forces in the country under wraps, fearing it will adversely impact the results of the elections if the figure is released, said a senior American official who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.
The statement on Monday did not give any hints regarding troops levels, saying only that the ground mission has been “consolidated under a single headquarters, reflecting the Coalition’s commitment to eliminate unnecessary command structures.”
Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt, the former commander of the land forces, said in Monday’s statement that the authority over the troops will be handed over to the Combined Joint Task Force — the headquarters that coordinates all anti-Islamic State operations, including airstrikes. While significantly reduced in frequency and pace, American jets continue to hit Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
A spokesman for Iraq’s military, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, hinted at the Iraqi government desire to see American forces stay.
“We look forward to taking the partnership forward with the Combined Joint Task Force, and a friendship that will endure for years to come,” he said in Monday’s statement.
In recent weeks, attacks claimed by the Islamic State have ramped up in areas north and west of Baghdad as the group’s spokesman made an explicit threat last week to disrupt the May elections.