Report to Congress on Iraq and U.S. Military Presence

February 22, 2024 10:14 AM

The following is the Congressional Research Service Insight Feb. 16, 2024, report Iraq: Attacks and U.S. Strikes Reopen Discussion of U.S. Military Presence.

From the report

Iran-backed armed groups attacked U.S. personnel in Iraq more than 60 times between the October 2023 onset of the Israel-Hamas war and February 4, 2024. In response, President Joe Biden has ordered U.S. air strikes in Iraq and in neighboring Syria. Iraq’s government, citing risks to Iraq’s security from the attacks and counter-strikes, says it seeks to end the presence in Iraq of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS/ISIL) and to engage in bilateral discussions about the future of the U.S. military presence. U.S.-Iraq talks announced by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have begun on the “evolution” of the coalition mission and to “enable the transition to an enduring bilateral security partnership.” After Iraq-coalition talks on February 11, an Iraqi military spokesman said, “a timetable will be formulated for a deliberate and gradual reduction, leading to the end of the mission of the international coalition forces … and the transition to a bilateral relationship, as long as peace is not disturbed.”

In December 2023, President Biden cited the Iraqi government’s invitation for U.S. forces and the coalition to remain in Iraq in his semiannual comprehensive war powers report to Congress. That same month, U.S. Central Command reported that approximately 2,400 U.S. military personnel were deployed in Iraq and 800 in Syria. The U.S. military presence in Iraq and U.S. military access to Iraq’s airspace and land border with Syria facilitate U.S. military operations in Syria, where IS insurgents are more active than in Iraq and U.S. partner forces secure prisons holding thousands of IS fighters.

In December 2023, Congress authorized U.S. counter-IS partnership programs in Iraq and Syria through December 2024. Members of Congress may consider how potential changes to the U.S. and/or coalition presence in Iraq may affect U.S. interests in the region; whether changes should be made to patterns of U.S. assistance to Iraqi and Syrian partners; whether additional consultation with the executive branch or oversight is warranted; and how attacks on U.S. personnel and U.S. strikes comport with the War Powers Resolution and the 2001 and 2002 legislative authorizations for the use of military force.

Escalating Attacks and U.S. Strikes Follow Hamas-Led Attacks on Israel and Onset of Gaza War

Following the U.S. killing in Iraq of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani and an Iraqi security official (both U.S.-designated terrorists) in January 2020, Iraq’s parliament voted to direct the Iraqi government to expel foreign forces and deny foreign access to Iraqi airspace, territory, and waters. Iraq’s then-caretaker government did not do so, and its successors engaged U.S. counterparts in talks that led in December 2021 to an announced end to U.S. combat operations and a transition to training and advisory support. Intermittent attacks on U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq continued through early 2023, with some attributed to Iran-backed Iraqi armed groups. Observers noted changes in the pattern of such attacks in relation to developments in Iraq, Syria, and the wider region. President Biden directed strikes following some attacks on U.S. personnel in Syria and Iraq, and the Administration has stated its intent to defend U.S. personnel with “proportional” responses.

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