WASHINGTON — The United States is cutting troop levels in Iraq roughly in half, to 3,000 forces, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said Wednesday, in a long-expected move that will help fulfill President Trump’s goal of reducing the Pentagon’s overseas deployments.
The decision to reduce the 5,200 troops now in Iraq comes three weeks after Mr. Trump met with Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the Iraqi prime minister, in Washington, in part to finalize details of the drawdown, which will happen this month.
“This reduced footprint allows us to continue advising and assisting our Iraqi partners in rooting out the final remnants of ISIS in Iraq and ensuring its enduring defeat,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, said in remarks in Iraq on Wednesday.
General McKenzie, who last month signaled the impending troop cuts, said improvements in the Iraqi military’s campaign against the Islamic State enabled the Pentagon to make the additional troop cuts.
“This decision is due to our confidence in the Iraqi security forces’ increased ability to operate independently,” General McKenzie said.
Drawing down to 3,000 troops would bring American force levels in Iraq roughly back to where they were in 2015, when the United States was in the early phase of its campaign against the Islamic State, which captured one-third of the country.
Mr. Trump has long vowed to withdraw all U.S. forces from the region, from both Iraq and Syria. “We’re bringing them home from Syria. We’re bringing them home from Iraq,” he said on “Fox & Friends” last month. “These endless wars, they never stop.”
In his meeting with Mr. al-Kadhimi, Mr. Trump reiterated his desire to remove troops from the area.
“So at some point, we obviously will be gone,” Mr. Trump said. “We look forward to the day when we don’t have to be there, and hopefully Iraq can live their own lives and they can defend themselves, which they’ve been doing long before we got involved.”
In a meeting with journalists after the White House gathering, Mr. al-Kadhimi reaffirmed the need for American military assistance to help fight remnants of the Islamic State.
“ISIS sleeper cells are still operating in Iraq,” said Mr. al-Kadhimi, a former chief of Iraqi intelligence, speaking through an interpreter. “The threat is still there.”
The Islamic State in Iraq is still able to wage a low-tech, low-cost, largely rural — and lethal — campaign, American and Iraqi counterterrorism officials say. While ISIS has not carried out attacks on the scale that it did a few years ago, the number of attacks began to grow again earlier this year.
The Pentagon is reluctant to keep more than the absolute minimum of troops in Iraq because they have been attacked by Iranian-backed militias. An attack on an Iraqi base in March killed three soldiers of the American-led military coalition there, two of them Americans, and wounded 14.
Since then, the United States has consolidated its troops on fewer bases, a repositioning that General McKenzie acknowledged last month had diverted resources from fighting ISIS. Separately, the training mission has been suspended for the past several months because of concerns about the coronavirus.