Coalition will shift to supporting Iraqi forces to root out sleeper cells
US shuts down ground forces HQ in Baghdad
The US on Monday shut down the headquarters of its ground forces in Iraq, signalling Washington’s willingness to reduce its presence in the country.
A US-led coalition was formed in 2014 to counter ISIS, with thousands of foreign troops and air support on hand to help Iraqi security forces in their battle against the insurgents. Thanks in part to their efforts, Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi was able to destroy the caliphate declared by ISIS, announcing total victory last December.
The move to close the headquarters signifies the “changing composition and responsibilities of the coalition” in defeating the extremists in Iraq, the combined Joint Task Force said in a statement.
Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition described the move as a “milestone”.
“Today, our 75-member strong coalition stands committed to Iraq post ISIS stabilization. Over three million Iraqis are back in their homes in areas once controlled by ISIS and we are working with the government of Iraq and the World Bank to set the foundation for long-term recovery,” Mr McGurk said, adding that the development signifies a "shift in supporting Iraqi forces to root out terrorist cells."
Since Mr Al Abadi's victory declaration, the terror group has reverted to a guerrilla-style insurgency and continues to carry out attacks on selected targets.
During the past few months, security officials estimate that between 150-200 armed forces members have been killed in ISIS ambushes and insurgent attacks.
Attacks across Kirkuk, Nineveh, and parts of Salahuddin and Anbar governorates have also killed dozens of civilians in an offensive that could disrupt parliamentary elections in May.
US troops began drawing down in Iraq earlier this year, shifting equipment and personnel to Afghanistan, where the fight against ISIS affiliated groups has increased.
In a statement, Brigade General Yahya Rasool Abdullah, spokesman for the Iraqi security forces, praised the commitment and professionalism of the coalition’s troops and said he looked forward to a partnership “that will endure for years to come."
“Iraq is immensely grateful for their sacrifice and dedication in this task,” he said.
Meanwhile in Iraq, the finance director for Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) was assassinated on Sunday.
Qassim Al Zubaidi was killed on Sunday night after a group of armed men stormed his home in Baghdad's Bayaa district. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, a prominent leader of the paramilitary group Kataib Hezbollah, has called for an investigation into incident.
While some of the PMF date back to the insurgency against the US occupation of Iraq, others were formed in 2014 after Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, urged citizens to take up arms against ISIS fighters who had swept aside government forces and sized control of much of northern Iraq. Accordingly, much of Iraq's Shiite population view the estimated 150,000 PMF fighters as national saviors. Critics though note that many of the groups within the PMF stand accused of widespread human rights abuses, while others are so closely aligned to Iran as to serve Tehran's regional ambitions.
The assassination comes two weeks before Iraqis head to the polls to vote in the country's general elections.