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Biden To Welcome Iraq's Prime Minister To The White House

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

President Biden is hosting the Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, at the White House today. And one of the topics will be how long to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. There are some 2,500 troops there now. And talks have been taking place about how to reduce that or how to scale back their duties. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now from Beirut to talk about it. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

MCCAMMON: So what do we know about the discussions that are set to take place at the White House today?

SHERLOCK: Well, Iraq's prime minister has been briefing that Iraq no longer requires the presence of U.S. combat troops in the country to fight ISIS. He told The Associated Press he plans to discuss a timeframe for their redeployment. You know, this is part, though, of an ongoing conversation about the status of American troops in Iraq. U.S. forces were sent there by President Obama to fight ISIS in 2014. And there've been in recent months talks about shifting their role to a train and equip mission. But no timeline has been set for that. Today's meeting at the White House is a continuation of that conversation, with some expecting that they may announce the end of combat troops by the end of this year.

MCCAMMON: And what would an end to the role of combat troops in Iraq mean in terms of a U.S. military presence in Iraq?

SHERLOCK: Well, that's the key question. Analysts say this is actually more about politics and diplomacy than any real change on the ground for now. They see this almost as a sort of window dressing to help the Iraqi prime minister with domestic politics back in Iraq. You know, Iranian-backed militias and politicians are very strong in Iraq. And since the U.S. assassinated Iran's top security and intelligence commander, Qassem Soleimani, last year, those groups that are aligned with Iran have been calling for action against the U.S. Iraq's parliament at one point even demanded the government expel U.S. forces. So Iraq's Prime Minister Kadhimi is under a lot of pressure, especially because he has elections coming up. Renad Mansour, an Iraq expert at Chatham House, a think tank in the U.K., says that in calling for an end to U.S. combat troops in Iraq, the Iraqi prime minister is trying to appease those Iranian-backed factions.

RENAD MANSOUR: Really, he's sending a message from Iran to the U.S. to say, remove your combat troops. And the Americans are replying saying, OK, we'll remove our combat troops, but we're going to have our advisers there. They might just look the same.

SHERLOCK: And this is really the point. In actual fact, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is expected to remain similar. Instead, their role will be redefined to provide training and intelligence to Iraqi forces. U.S. military officials say this more or less already reflects the reality that's happening on the ground now in Iraq.

MCCAMMON: And for the U.S., Ruth, what are the interests there?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, the U.S. has an interest in helping Iraq continue to fight ISIS, which still has a presence there. Its operations in Iraq also support a small number of U.S. troops in neighboring Syria. And the U.S. wants to counter Iran. Iranian-backed militias have escalated drone and rocket attacks against U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. And the U.S. has responded with air strikes. Many Iraqis, including the prime minister, also recognize that they want the U.S. to support Iraqi forces. And a U.S. presence is important for many other European states operating in Iraq. This discussion now today is happening to the - with a backdrop of the Pentagon withdrawing forces from Afghanistan after 20 years. That withdrawal is quite dramatic. Instead, in Iraq, it's likely that it's going to be a slow change in the role of troops and possibly numbers over quite a long time.

MCCAMMON: And, briefly, will an announcement like this be enough to appease Iranian-backed militias calling for an end to the U.S. presence?

SHERLOCK: Well, Iranian-backed militias insist they want a full withdrawal, but analysts say this might be useful for their rhetoric to their supporters to project strength against the U.S.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Ruth Sherlock, thanks.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RRAREBEAR'S "BACKPACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.