Anti-ISIS coalition announces 'shift' in Iraq amid reports of US drawdown

Anti-ISIS coalition announces 'shift' in Iraq amid reports of US drawdown
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The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced a “shift” in operations in Iraq amid reports of a U.S. drawdown there.

“Enabled by accelerated successes following the liberation of Mosul, the coalition will shift its focus in Iraq from enabling combat operations to sustaining military gains against Daesh,” Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) said in a news release Monday, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

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Earlier Monday, The Associated Press and Reuters quoted an Iraqi government spokesman as saying U.S. forces were drawing down in the country following ISIS’s defeat there. An unnamed senior Iraqi official told the AP an initial agreement between Baghdad and Washington would see 60 percent of U.S. troops withdraw.

The coalition’s Monday statement mentioned to a changing “force composition,” but pledged to keep an “appropriate amount” of capabilities in Iraq. Its continued presence will be “conditions-based, proportional to the need and in coordination with the government of Iraq,” it added.

"We're clear the enemy is still capable of offensive action and retains the ability to plan and inspire attacks worldwide," Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, the coalition’s director of operations, said in a statement. "Although OIR’s force composition may change over time to ensure we have the best forces on hand for the task, we will retain an appropriate amount of capabilities as well as an advisory presence to continue training, advising and equipping our partners in the continued fight against Daesh, all with the approval of the government of Iraq."

The Iraqi government declared victory over ISIS in December after three years of fighting. The terrorist group swept through Iraq in 2014, and at its height controlled a third of Iraqi territory.

The U.S. first launched airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq in August 2014. Since then, the U.S. military presence has grown to officially about 5,500 troops.

The Pentagon estimates that ISIS has lost about 98 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria. Still, U.S. officials have warned that ISIS remains a threat capable of carrying out attacks on the West and that it could regain its territory if Iraq and Syria aren’t stabilized.

In his Monday statement, Braga said the U.S. military presence in Iraq will now focus on policing, border control and military capacity building, as well as enabling diplomatic and economic efforts to stabilize Iraq.

“We will sustain the successful momentum and enhance the capacities of the Iraqi Security Forces in pursuing Daesh, now and in the future,” Braga said. “Military success has bought time, space and security for non-military stabilization efforts to help the people of Iraq, and we look to facilitate the return of normalcy for Iraqis.”

The coalition will not provide information on specific countries’ contributions to the plans, the release said. But, it added, 2018 will be a “critical year in adjusting coalition forces” to consolidate gains against ISIS.

"We will redouble our efforts to develop the Iraqi Security Forces, ensuring they have the necessary capability and expertise to meet current and future security threats," Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, the coalition’s deputy commander for strategy and support, said in a statement. “We remain committed to working with our Iraqi partners.”