U.S. combat troops will not stay on in Iraq after the fight against the Islamic State group is over, Iraq’s Prime Minister said Friday — a statement that followed an Associated Press report on talks between Iraq and the United States on maintaining American forces in the country. In his statement, Haider al-Abadi emphasized that there are no foreign combat troops on Iraqi soil and that any American troops who stay on once IS militants are defeated will be advisers working to train Iraq’s security forces to maintain “full readiness” for any “future security challenges”. While some U.S. forces are carrying out combat operations with Iraqi forces on and beyond front lines in the fight against IS, al-Abadi has maintained that the forces are acting only as advisers, apparently to get around a required parliamentary approval for their presence. Any forces who remained would continue to be designated as advisers for the same reason, the Iraqi government official had told the AP. Regardless of how the troops are designated, talks about maintaining American forces in Iraq point to a consensus by both governments that a longer-term U.S. presence in Iraq is needed to ensure that an insurgency does not bubble up again once IS militants are driven out — a contrast to the full U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Currently, the Pentagon has close to 7,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, many not publicly acknowledged because they are on temporary duty or under specific personnel rules. At the height of the surge of U.S. forces in 2007, there were about 170,000 American troops in the country. The numbers were wound down eventually to 40,000, before the complete withdrawal in 2011.
Some businessmen in Mosul have begun rebuilding their shattered premises without waiting for financial support from the cash-strapped Iraqi government or for the final defeat of Islamic State (ISIS) in the city. Rafi’ Ghanem owns an automotive spare parts business in the eastern side of the city. Ghanem said he and the 25 other businesses that rent space in the building agreed to contribute funds to help the landlord clear the debris and rebuild one of the two storeys. The city, captured by ISIS in 2014, has suffered extensive damage as hundreds of houses and public buildings including the airport, the main railway station and the university have been destroyed. Cement and steel prices have gone down steeply since the militants were defeated in eastern Mosul, as road connections have opened up with the rest of Iraq and Turkey, allowing supplies to resume. A metric ton of cement used to sell for up to 350,000 Iraqi dinars ($300) after the militants took over nearly three years ago. It now costs 80,000 to 90,000, said an importer, Saif Ibrahim. And although some work may cause discomfort to road users, engineer Mahmoud Younis will continue to rebuild. “We are working in crowded areas and we cause traffic jams. We also lack machinery and have limited resources, so we sometimes use machinery from other departments to keep work going”, he said. For Ghanem and many other Mosul residents, there is no other choice but to rebuild the city which had a pre-war population of more than 2 million.
Speaking to reporters in Baghdad, Abadi said the time is not ripe for a referendum, with ISIS on the doorstep, running parts of the country. Referring to comments by some Kurdish leaders who claimed holding a referendum does not mean the declaration of independence, Abadi said “Some say we will hold referendum, but we’re not going to implement it. Then what will you have to tell your people if you are to hold referendum and not implement it”. He reiterated Baghdad’s message to Erbil that “we frankly say, it will not be in the interest of the Kurdistan Region to hold a referendum at this time. I, as the prime minister, have to take the interests of my citizens into consideration. In my opinion holding referendum is not in their interest, but will create a set of problems for them. Being in a hurry in this subject is equal to a withdrawal from all the victories that have been achieved in the past”. He gave the short-lived Republic of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan which lasted less than a year as an example of a failure in the Kurdish movement in the region. The time was not right for the Republic of Mahabad, leading to its collapse. Abadi’s message to the Kurdistan Region was to not repeat the same experience. Commenting on the controversial flag issue in Kirkuk, Abadi said “Too much attention has been paid to the raising of the Kurdistan flag in Kirkuk. A solution to this subject has to be found. Our words with regards to this matter are clear. According to law, they do not have the right to hoist flags on the governmental buildings. Also, according to law, the Kirkuk governmental institutions are part of Iraq and the Iraqi government raises only the Iraqi flag”. Explaining a suggestion he sent to the Kurdistan Region authorities through a joint Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) delegation who visited Baghdad earlier this month, Abadi said “I suggested to them to take down the flags on the governmental buildings and put them on the political parties’ buildings instead. Then it becomes another subject, which I, as the prime minister, will not get involved in.”On the same question, he pointed out, “I talked to many politicians on the issue of the Kurdistan flag who were against it. But now they have done the job and cannot stand against it, believing that it is political rhetoric”.
Refugees have been received at government camps since the start of offensives to recapture western Mosul from Islamic State have exceeded 76.000, according to the Iraqi government. The United Nations and Iraqi refugee bodies have warned that battles in western Mosul could displace at least 250.000 out of 750.000 estimated to be trapped under IS control in western Mosul. Upon the launch of operations to recapture eastern Mosul last October, the United Nations predicted 1.5 million refugees.