Mark Esper in Baghdad; US defence secretary to discuss deployment of American troops in Iraq to conduct operations against IS

  • Defense secretary Mark Esper arrived in Baghdad as chaos swirled over reports that US may want to increase number of troops based in Iraq

  • Esper has said that under current plan, all US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq, continue to conduct operations against Islamic State

  • Russia, Turkey reached an agreement that would deploy their forces across nearly its entire northeastern border to fill the void left by US forces

Baghdad: Defence secretary Mark Esper arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday, as chaos swirled along the Turkey-Syria border and Iraqi leaders chafed over reports the US may want to increase the number of troops based in Iraq at least temporarily.

 Mark Esper in Baghdad; US defence secretary to discuss deployment of American troops in Iraq to conduct operations against IS

File image of US defence secretary Mark Esper. AP

Esper has said that under the current plan, all US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and the military would continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State group to prevent its resurgence in the region.

He later added that the troops would be there temporarily until they are able to go home, but no time period has been set. He said Wednesday that the US has no plans to leave those troops in Iraq "interminably."

Iraq's military, however, said Tuesday that US troops leaving Syria and heading to neighboring Iraq do not have permission to stay in the country, even as the American forces continue to pull out of northern Syria after Turkey's invasion of the border region. Esper said Wednesday he plans to talk with Iraqi leaders about the matter.

Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey reached an agreement on Tuesday that would deploy their forces across nearly its entire northeastern border to fill the void left by President Donald Trump's abrupt withdrawal of US forces. It was unclear Wednesday what that means for US forces.

Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 US troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear in a phone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists.

The pullout largely abandons the Kurdish allies who have fought the Islamic State group alongside US troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 US troops will remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.

Esper said the troops going into Iraq would have two missions, one to help defend Iraq against a resurgence of Islamic State militants and another to monitor and perform a counter-IS mission. The US currently has more than 5,000 American forces in Iraq, under an agreement between the two countries.

The US pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after the Islamic State group began to take over large swaths of the country in 2014. The number of American forces in Iraq has remained small due to political sensitivities in the country, after years of what some Iraqis consider US occupation during the war that began in 2003.

Iraqi leaders may privately condone more US forces to battle IS, but worry if it is widely known that there will be backlash from the citizens. US troops in Syria fought for five years alongside Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria and succeeded in bringing down the rule of the Islamic State group there at the cost of thousands of Kurdish fighters' lives.

Under the new agreement, much of that territory would be handed over to US rivals. The biggest winners are Turkey and Russia. Turkey would get sole control over areas of the Syrian border captured in its invasion, while Turkish, Russian and Syrian government forces would oversee the rest of the border region.

America's former US allies, the Kurdish fighters, are left hoping Moscow and Damascus will preserve some pieces of their autonomy dreams.

Updated Date: Oct 23, 2019 15:11:50 IST