The United States government announced on March 16, Monday, that it would relocate its troops from three key bases in Iraq and hand them over to the Iraqi military. The US troops will leave these bases and relocate to the five remaining bases in the country. The three bases to be handed over have been identified as al-Qaim near the Iraq-Syria border, Qayara Airfield West and Kirkuk.
The announcement comes after the call for US and foreign soldiers to leave the country was renewed recently and several camps hosting foreign troops were attacked with rockets. In one such attack on March 11, three foreign troops were killed at the Taji base.
The US then attacked Katiab Hezbollah, one of the constituents of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) or the Hasad al-Sha’abi militias, on March 14. This led the Iraqi military to issue a statement asking foreign troops to leave the country.
According to Press TV, the Iraqi military’s statement emphasizes that the US cannot carry out attacks inside Iraq without the Iraqi government’s permission or using the excuse of attacks perpetrated against US troops.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo had earlier asserted the right to retaliate against any attack. However, Monday’s decision to withdraw its troops is a clear sign of the rising concerns regarding the safety of US troops in Iraq.
BBC quoted a senior US defense official as saying that the proximity of Kataib Hezbollah to the al-Qaim base was a “key factor within the calculation of the decision to move forces elsewhere”. Both Qayara and Kirkuk bases have been hit by rocket attacks earlier, and one US contractor was killed at Kirkuk in December last year.
The PMF has asked all foreign troops to leave Iraq on several occasions following the assassination of its commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on January 3 in an attack carried by the US.
The killing of al-Muhandis and Iranian General Qassem Soleimani had prompted a resolution in the Iraqi parliament on January 5 asking all foreign troops to leave the country.
The US stationed a large number of its troops in Iraq after invading the country in 2003. Though most of these were withdrawn later, the remaining forces’ presence was extended in 2014 on the pretext of assisting the government forces in their fight against the rising threat of the Islamic State or ISIS.
There are around 5,200 US troops in Iraq at present. Since the defeat of the Islamic State in 2017, the presence of US troops in Iraq has become a major political issue with several calling it an occupying force post the passage of the resolution calling for their exit in the Iraqi parliament.