US forces pack up and leave Kirkuk airbase… but pulling out of Iraq still off the table

US and coalition troops have left an airbase in Kirkuk, Iraq, and given a million dollars-worth of equipment to Iraqi security forces. However, the full-scale withdrawal demanded by the Iraqi government has still some way to go.

With the Covid-19 pandemic grabbing headlines at home, US forces in Iraq have been engaged in a quiet retreat abroad. Despite President Donald Trump’s insistence on leaving troops in Iraq following a series of clashes with Iranian-backed militias, coalition forces have withdrawn from three bases in the country this month.

The third withdrawal, from the K1 Airbase near the northern city of Kirkuk, was announced on Sunday by coalition spokesman  Col. Myles Caggins. Claiming that the coalition’s goal of defeating Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) was “successful,” Caggins said that the base’s 300 coalition soldiers and sailors would be “repositioned to other locations to continue the anti-ISIS partnership.”

A rocket attack on the base by an Iran-aligned militia group in December killed an American contractor and triggered a series of retaliatory attacks, eventually leading to the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by the US in January. Soleimani’s killing, and the Iranian missile strike on another American base that followed, brought the US and Iran to the brink of open war.

Now, the US is abandoning many of these facilities. Bases at Qaim and Qayyarah – both flashpoints for clashes with pro-Iranian militias – were vacated earlier this month, and US troops will pull out of more locations this year. 

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Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi formally asked the United States to withdraw its forces from his country in January, after Soleimani’s killing and the ensuing standoff with Iran. Washington rebuffed this demand. Despite giving up several of its bases in recent weeks, a full withdrawal from Iraq is still nowhere in sight.

Instead, troops from the abandoned locations will be repositioned in Baghdad and at Ain Al-Asad Airbase 100 miles (160km) west of the capital. According to Iranian news sources, American troops at Al-Asad have already begun constructing an airport and have stepped up patrols in the surrounding desert, suggesting the Americans may have a footprint in Iraq for quite some time to come.

There are around 7,500 coalition troops based in Iraq, 5,000 of them US forces. It is unclear whether the latest round of withdrawals will see that number reduce.

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