WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Monday that the United States would end its combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year, shifting fully to an advisory and training role as America dials down its involvement in long-term conflicts in the Middle East.
“We’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat zone,” Mr. Biden said as he met with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi of Iraq at the White House Monday.
The agreement to end the combat mission is largely symbolic, since U.S. troops no longer accompany Iraqi forces hunting remaining pockets of Islamic State fighters.
Pentagon and other administration officials said they will remove a small but unspecified number of the 2,500 American forces currently stationed in Iraq, and reclassify on paper the roles of other forces to advise and assist their Iraqi counterparts. For his part, Mr. al-Kadhimi will have a political trophy to take home to satisfy anti-American factions in Iraq and the U.S. military presence will remain.
“The objective of both sides is for nothing to change and to keep about 2,500 U.S. troops there that would do things they are already doing, that’s supporting Iraqi security forces, but not engage in combat,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
What appears to be a set piece of diplomatic theater is the latest effort by Mr. al-Kadhimi to tread between the needs and demands of Iraq’s two closest allies, the United States and Iran. Pro-Iranian factions have been clamoring for a U.S. departure, while Iraqi officials acknowledge they still need the help of American forces.
But while giving Mr. al-Kadhimi temporary political cover, a reclassification of U.S. forces rather than a drawdown likely won’t satisfy the militias and political parties calling for a withdrawal of all troops, Iraqi officials say.
“Changing their name from combat forces to trainers and advisers — we consider it as an attempt at deception,” said Mohammad al-Rubai’e, political spokesman for Asaib Ahl al-Haq, one of the biggest Iranian-backed militias, which maintains 16 seats in the Iraqi parliament.