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Biden to meet with Iraqi PM amid tension over troops, renewed ISIS threats

President Biden will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani at the White House on Monday with the future of American troops in Iraq is in flux, and as the Islamic terror group ISIS has re-emerged amid mounting tensions in the Middle East.

At the meeting, al-Sudani and Biden will focus on private sector and business investment in Iraq, a priority for Baghdad, and other more cooperative areas like energy security, according to a senior State Department official.

But an important part of the discussions will be on the future of the American presence in Iraq, where around 2,500 U.S. troops are stationed. The U.S. and Iraq are engaged in ongoing talks on whether those troops are still needed to counter ISIS.

“It is not the primary focus of the visit,” the State Department official said in a call with reporters, referring to the troops. “But it is almost certainly going to come up.”

Biden’s meeting with al-Sudani will be closely watched as the leaders are meeting during an extremely tense time in the Middle East that has strained U.S.-Iraq relations.

Israel is waging a war against Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza, where more than 33,000 people have died in more than six months of war. The conflict has sparked regional escalation between U.S. forces and Israel and Iranian-backed proxies.

The Houthi rebels in Yemen are still regularly launching strikes on merchant ships in the Red Sea, where they are battling U.S. forces defending the commercial route.

Iraq was also a battleground in the regional conflict until a couple months ago, when the last Iranian-backed proxy groups in Iraq and Syria launched an attack on a U.S. base. Those Iran-backed militia groups have paused attacks since deadly U.S. retaliatory strikes in February.

Still, al-Sudani and Iraqi officials expressed anger at both Iran and the U.S. for using Iraq as a battleground in the proxy war.

At the heart of the ongoing discussions between Washington and Baghdad on the future of American troops are whether the Iraqi security forces trained by American troops are capable now of fending off the threat from ISIS.

The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 to dismantle the regime of Saddam Hussein and returned in 2014 at the invitation of Iraq to defeat ISIS, a continuing mission.

ISIS remains largely defeated after losing key swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017.

However, the Afghanistan branch of the widely condemned terror group, ISIS-K, has since re-emerged, attacking and killing dozens of people in both Iran and Russia this year. ISIS-K was also responsible for the bombing at the Kabul airport in 2021 that killed 13 American servicemembers during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Al-Sudani said in an opinion piece in Foreign Affairs magazine that stakeholders in the ongoing meetings have agreed to withdraw the international coalition in a gradual manner, with a road map toward that end still under discussion.

He said the U.S. and Iraq need a “new phase of partnership, based on cooperation that goes beyond just security and military affairs” because the ISIS threat is diminished.

“Little by little, as security and stability are restored, the need for weapons outside the control of the state and its institutions will disappear. We are working concertedly toward that end,” he wrote, instead calling for greater U.S.-Iraq cooperation on diplomacy, economy, education and technology, among other areas.

Al-Sudani also cited the violence in his country involving American forces and Iranian-backed groups, and argued the “decision to make war and peace must be an exclusive matter for the state, and no other party can claim this right.”

“We approach every country on equal terms, so that Iraq does not become an arena for any outside actor to settle scores,” he wrote. “Iraq must be dealt with on the basis of sovereignty and mutual respect, not as a proxy for other conflicts.”

The State Department official said the “ability of the Iraqis to make their own decisions and to build their sovereignty and to respect that is something that is very important.”

The official also stressed that discussions are ongoing about the future of American troops, but after 10 years, they “see an opportunity” to “transition to a stronger bilateral relationship and partnership.”

“Whether that ends up as adjusting our forces there, ” the official said, “all of that is being discussed.”

Another issue likely to come up is a hostage held by an Iran-backed militia in Iraq. Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) sent a letter to Biden ahead of the meeting with al-Sudani expressing concern about the Iraqi government’s close ties with Iran-backed militias, including Kataib Hezbollah, according to Politico.

Waltz pressed Biden to “condition the meeting” with al-Sudani on the Iraqi leader pushing Kataib Hezbollah to release a kidnapped U.S.-base doctoral student, Elizabeth Tsurkov, who is a Russian-Israeli citizen. She has been held since March 2023 after being detained on a visit to Baghdad.

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