The Pentagon said Monday said the overall number of U.S. troops in Iraq will remain at just over 5,000 for the foreseeable future, contradicting Iraqi officials who said a drawdown was underway now that the Islamic State has been defeated.
The Associated Press quoted Saad al-Hadithi, an Iraqi government spokesman, as saying “the battle against Daesh has ended, and so the level of the American presence will be reduced.”
Daesh is the Arabic language acronym for ISIS.
But Pentagon officials told the Washington Examiner that while the makeup of the U.S. contribution to the counter-ISIS coalition would be changing, the number of U.S. troops will not be going down anytime soon.
“We are not signaling any significant drawdown in Iraq at this time,” said Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman. “We shifting our focus from combat operations to training operations in order to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS.”
For instance, forward air controllers who spot targets and direct airstrikes against ground targets will now be shifted to train Iraqis to do that mission.
The number of airstrikes has dropped dramatically since last summer, when more than 5,000 bombs and missiles were dropped in Iraq and Syria.
The latest report from U.S. Air Forces Central Command says only 584 munitions were released in the two war zones.
The U.S. plans to eventually reduce the number of troops providing training, advice and assistance, and any change will be coordinated with the government of Iraq, said Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, director of operations for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, in a statement.
"Our enduring presence as invited guests in Iraq will shift to focus more on policing, border control and military capacity building, Braga said. "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."
Pentagon officials say any future change in the size of the U.S. force will be "conditions-based, proportional to the need and in coordination with the government of Iraq."
The U.S. military says that while ISIS has lost approximately 98 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, it is expected to morph into a low-level insurgency and continue to carry out lethal attacks and threaten regional stability.
"We're at a point where ISIS is on the ropes," said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in a meeting with reporters last week. "It's not over yet. We need to keep the pressure on."
Mattis says most of the remaining ISIS fighters in Iraq are hiding either in small concentrations the desert, or are in small sleeper cells.
"So we want to stay focused on this," Mattis said. "They're on the run."