Biden aims to end Iraq combat mission by 2022

President Joe Biden said Monday the U.S. combat mission in Iraq will conclude by the end of the year, an announcement that reflects the reality on the ground more than a major shift in U.S. policy.

The topic was brought up during a strategic dialogue between Biden and the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi inside the White House on Monday afternoon.

Even before Biden took office, the main U.S. focus has been assisting Iraqi forces, not fighting on their behalf. And Biden did not say if he planned to reduce the number of troops in Iraq, now about 2,500.

"So it’s unclear right now whether some of those troops will leave, whether a lot of them will leave, whether none of them will leave," said Associated Press reporter Sagar Meghani.

Biden said the U.S. military will continue to assist Iraq in its fight against the Islamic State group, or ISIS. A joint U.S.-Iraq statement said the security relationship will be focused on training, advising, and intelligence-sharing.

The shift from a U.S. combat role to one focused on training and advising the Iraqi security forces was announced in April when a joint U.S.-Iraqi statement said this transition allowed for the removal from Iraq of any remaining U.S. combat forces on a timetable to be determined later. It did not specify what combat functions the U.S. was engaged in then, nor did Biden get into such specifics on Monday.

"While the U.S. is formally ending their combat mission, the Pentagon will always tell you that our troops are armed and they do have the right to self-defense. And if they come under attack, they will fight back," Meghani said.

"So there should be no illusion that that people are out of harm’s way," Meghani added.

The announcement comes on the heels of Biden’s decision to withdraw fully from Afghanistan nearly 20 years after the U.S. launched that war in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Together, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have heavily taxed the U.S. military and kept it from devoting more attention to a rising China, which the Biden administration calls the biggest long-term security challenge.

"Looking at threats that again, don’t come from the Taliban in the mountains, come from Saddam Hussein’s forces in the sands of Iraq, but looking to space, looking to cyber, looking at some of these 21st-century threats and not what the U.S. has been focused on fighting for the last 18 and 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively," Meghani said.