(RepublicanPeak.com) – During an unannounced visit to Iraq this week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated Washington’s commitment to keeping US troops in the country, Reuters reported on Tuesday.
After meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani, Secretary Austin told reporters that the US would keep forces in Iraq if invited to do so by the Iraqi government. He said the US remains committed to strengthening and broadening its partnership with Iraq in support of the country’s “security, stability, and sovereignty.”
Prime Minister Sudani said in a statement that Iraq seeks to maintain relations with both regional and international governments based on mutual interests and respect for sovereignty. He said Iraq’s stability is central to the stability and security of the region.
Twenty years after the US invaded Iraq, 2,500 US troops remain in the country. Another 900 US troops are currently in neighboring Syria serving as advisors assisting local troops fighting Islamic State.
Former officials told Reuters that Secretary Austin’s trip was also to show support for Prime Minister Sudani’s push-back against Iran’s influence in the country.
A senior Defense Department official told Reuters that Iraq’s leaders agree with the US that the country should not become a “playground for conflict” between Iran and the US.
Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq have targeted US interests in the country, including attacking the US embassy in Baghdad.
While in Iraq, Secretary Austin also traveled to Erbil to meet with Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Currently, there has been a long-running dispute between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments over oil revenue sharing and budget transfers.
According to the Pentagon, Austin reaffirmed Washington’s partnership with the Kurdistan Regional Government and discussed the current threats to the stability of the region.
Secretary Austin also met with Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and expressed his thanks for the Peshmerga’s contributions to the fight against Islamic State.