The United States' Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin today arrived in Iraq on an unannounced visit to discuss continued defence cooperation and to reaffirm Washington's partnership with Baghdad.
After beginning his Middle East tour on Sunday in Jordan, in which he met with King Abdullah, it was expected that Austin would later visit Israel and Egypt for discussions on regional issues and to reiterate the US's commitment to its allies in the region. The unannounced visit to Iraq today, therefore, came as a surprise.
"I'm here to reaffirm the US-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable and sovereign Iraq", the Defence Secretary stated on Twitter. A Pentagon statement also emphasised that he "shared his concerns on a range of shared challenges, including … maintaining focus on security and stability in Iraq, and countering other destabilising activities in the region".
In an address to media in Baghdad today, following his meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammad Shia Al-Sudani and Defence Minister, Thabet Muhammad Al-Abbasi, Austin stated that the visit and engagements "underscore the US commitment to expanding our partnership with the people and the government of Iraq. We're deeply committed to ensuring that the Iraqi people can live in peace and dignity, with safety and security and with economic opportunity for all."
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Emphasising the role of the US military and its leading of the international coalition against Daesh, he called the defence cooperation between Washington and Baghdad "a key pillar of our bilateral relationship, and the United States remains committed to this fight in support of Iraq's security and the security of the entire region. Prime Minister Sudani and I both reaffirmed that commitment today".
Austin also stated that US forces "are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq. These forces are operating in a non-combat advise, assist and enable role to support the Iraqi-led fight against terrorism." He warned that, in order to do so, however, "we must be able to operate safely and securely to continue this vital work", referring to the threats and attacks against American bases and military personnel within Iraq by Iran-backed Shia militias, many of which are aligned with and operate alongside Iraq's military.
"I want to thank Prime Minister Sudani and Minister of Defence Abbasi for their commitment today to ensure that the coalition forces in Iraq, at the Iraqi government's request, will be protected from state and non-state actors", the Defence Secretary said. He further assured the US is "focused on the mission of defeating Daesh, and we are here for no other purpose, and threats or attacks on our forces only undermine that mission."
The surprise visit to Iraq by America's top defence official comes almost two decades after the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.