Why US troops are staying in Iraq 20 years after ‘shock and awe’

WASHINGTON (AP) — Twenty years after the United States invaded Iraq — in blinding outbursts of shock and awe — American forces remain in the country in what has become a small but constant presence to ensure a relationship continues with a key military and diplomatic partner in the Middle East.

The roughly 2,500 US troops are scattered across the country, mostly at military installations in Baghdad and the north. And while a far cry from the more than 170,000 US forces in Iraq at the height of the war in 2007, US officials say the limited – but continuing – troop level is essential as proof of commitment to peace. region and protection against Iranian influence and arms trafficking.

A look at America’s evolving role in Iraq:


The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 in what it called a “shock and awe” massive bombing campaign that lit up the skies, devastated large swathes of the country and paved the way for the convergence of US ground troops towards Baghdad. The invasion was based on what turned out to be erroneous claims that Saddam Hussein had secretly hidden weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons never materialized.

Saddam was ousted from power and the US war shifted the country’s government base from minority Sunni Arabs to majority Shiites, with the Kurds gaining their own autonomous region. While many Iraqis welcomed Saddam’s ouster, they were disappointed when the government failed to restore basic services and the ongoing battles instead caused widespread humanitarian suffering.

Resentment and power struggles between Shiites and Sunnis fueled the civil war, ultimately leading to America’s full withdrawal in December 2011. The divide was a key factor in the collapse of police and military forces country in the face of the Islamic State insurgency that swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014.


The rise of the Islamic State group – its roots were in al-Qaeda affiliates – and its growing threat to the United States and its allies across Europe sent the United States back to Iraq at the government’s invitation Baghdad in 2014. During that summer and fall, the US-led coalition launched airstrike campaigns in Iraq and then Syria, and reignited a massive effort to train and advise the Iraqi military .

The coalition’s train-and-advise mission continued, bolstered by a NATO contingent, even after the end of the Islamic State group’s campaign to create a caliphate in March 2019.

The approximately 2,500 soldiers deployed in Iraq live on joint bases with Iraqi troops, where they provide training and equipment. This troop total, however, fluctuates quite a bit, and the Pentagon does not disclose the number of US special operations forces that regularly move in and out of the country to assist Iraqi forces or travel to Syria for counterterrorism operations.

“Iraq is still under pressure from the Islamic State,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, who led US Central Command and was the top US commander for the Middle East. from 2019 to 2022. “We are still helping them to continue this fight. We have done a lot of things to help them improve control over their own sovereignty, which is of very great importance to the Iraqis.


The oft-cited reason for the continued US troop presence is to help Iraq combat remnants of the Islamic State insurgency and prevent any resurgence.

But a key reason is Iran.

Iran’s political influence and the strength of its militias in Iraq and throughout the region have been a recurring security concern for the United States over the years. And the presence of US forces in Iraq makes it harder for Iran to move weapons through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, for use by its proxies, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, against Israel.

The same goes for the presence of US troops around the al-Tanf garrison in southeastern Syria, which is located on a vital route that can connect Iranian-backed forces from Tehran to south of Lebanon – and at the gates of Israel. In Iraq and Syria, US troops are disrupting what could be an undisputed land bridge for Iran to the eastern Mediterranean.

US troops in Iraq are also providing critical logistical and other support to US forces in Syria, which is partnering with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State group. The United States carries out airstrikes and other missions targeting ISIS leaders, and also supports the SDF in the custody of thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their family members imprisoned in Syria.

Military leaders successfully rebuffed then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to withdraw all troops from Syria and Iraq. They argued that if anything were to happen in Syria that would endanger US forces, they should be able to quickly send troops, equipment and other support from Iraq.

During a recent visit to Baghdad To meet with Iraqi leaders, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said US forces were prepared to remain in Iraq, in a non-combat role, at the government’s invitation.

“We are deeply committed to ensuring that the people of Iraq can live in peace and dignity, in safety and security and with economic opportunity for all,” he said.


By the time Washington withdrew its last combat troops in December 2011, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians were dead, along with 4,487 American troops.

More than 3,500 soldiers were killed in hostile actions and almost 1,000 died out of combat from 2003 to 2011. More than 32,000 soldiers were wounded in combat; tens of thousands of others have also reported illnesses to the Department of Veterans Affairs believed to be linked to toxic exposure from burning fires in Iraq. Legislation enacted by the Biden administration has increased the number of these veterans who will be able to receive lifelong care or benefits as a result of this exposure.

From 2003 to 2012, the United States provided $60.64 billion to fund Iraqi security forces and civilian reconstruction, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Of this total, $20 billion went to financing, equipping, supplying uniforms and training Iraqi security forces.

There were about 100,000 contractors each year in Iraq supporting US forces and the US mission from 2007 to 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service. At the end of last year, there were about 6,500 contractors supporting US operations in Iraq and Syria, according to US Central Command.

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