SULAIMANI (ESTA) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, on Tuesday on an unannounced visit.
“I’m here, to reaffirm the US-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable, and sovereign Iraq,” Austin tweeted.
A senior U.S. defense official said the trip was designed to show the U.S. was committed to maintaining its military presence in the country, according to U.S. media.
The U.S. has 2,500 troops in Iraq and another 900 in Syria to support local troops in combating Islamic State (ISIS) militants who had seized large portions of territory in 2014 in both countries.
The U.S. top official’s visit comes as Iraq is near to commemorating the U.S. led-invasion in 2003, toppling the former Iraqi regime led by Saddam Hussein.
The 2003 invasion led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and created instability that eventually paved the way for the rise of Islamic State militants after the U.S. withdrew its forces in 2011.
“U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq,” Austin told reporters after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani.
“The United States will continue to strengthen and broaden our partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability, and sovereignty,” he said.
Austin, the most senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq, was the last commanding general of U.S. forces there after the invasion.
The trip is also about supporting Sudani’s pushback against Iranian influence in the country, former officials and experts said, according to Reuters.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have occasionally targeted U.S. forces and its embassy in Baghdad with rockets. The United States and Iran came close to full-blown conflict in 2020 after U.S. forces killed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike.