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Timing for move to be established in ‘upcoming technical talks’ and foreign forces to stay to provide training and assistance to Iraqi army, statement after US-Iraq talks says.
MIKE HANNA: The US was represented by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in his first direct, albeit virtual, talks with the Iraqi government. Foreign minister Fuad Hussein headed the Iraqi delegation, emphasizing the high level nature of the discussions. And his national security advisor made clear that the US military presence in Iraq was top of the agenda.
FUAD HUSSEIN: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
INTERPRETER: The two sides agreed that there will be no American military bases in Iraq, and therefore there will be no foreign bases. This is what was agreed upon today, at the end of the third round of the strategic dialogue.
MIKE HANNA: Relations between the two countries have been fraught, particularly following the US airstrike in January last year that killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader near Baghdad Airport. In the wake of the attack, Iraqi lawmakers passed a non-binding resolution on US-led coalition forces leaving the country.
And though relations have improved slightly after Mustafa Al-Kadhimi took over as prime minister, some parties, like the Iran-backed Fatah Bloc, continue to demand US withdrawal, the calls further fueled after President Biden ordered an air strike on a militia base on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border in January. US soldiers and contractors are the target of regular attacks by militia groups, and the Biden administration says it will not hesitate to respond if the Iraqi government doesn't.
Despite all these factors, the US does not envisage an imminent withdrawal, a Pentagon spokesman making clear that though this is a subject of ongoing discussion, there is no timeline.
JOHN KIRBY: The mission's still valid. The invitation by the Iraqi government is still in place. And we're continuing as we have been, even before today's talks, to talk with the Iraqi government about what that mission and that footprint is supposed to look like.
MIKE HANNA: All US troops were withdrawn from Iraq by December 2011. President Obama ordered their return three years later to assist Iraqi forces in their battle against ISIL. Some 2,500 troops still remain, in what the Pentagon says is increasingly a training capacity. Following the latest round of talks it appears they too will leave. The question unanswered is, when?
Mike Hanna, Al Jazeera, Washington.