Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Makes Unannounced Visit To Iraq Nearly 20 Years After U.S.-Led Invasion


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on Tuesday, moving to bolster U.S. ties just days before the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein and triggered years of unrest as the country continues to fight against the extremist Islamic State group.

Key Facts

Austin announced his arrival on Twitter as he landed in Baghdad and was greeted on the tarmac by Major General Matthew McFarlane, the U.S. commander in Iraq.

Austin, who was the last commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq following the 2003 invasion, said the visit aims to “reaffirm the U.S.-Iraq strategic partnership” as both nations move toward “a more secure, stable, and sovereign Iraq.”

Austin’s visit was reportedly kept secret for security reasons and he is expected to meet top officials while in Iraq, according to the Associated Press.

The visit will also help bolster support for Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani and counter increasing Iranian influence in the country, according to Fox News and Reuters.

The defense secretary is the most senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Iraq.

News Peg

Austin’s visit comes days before the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He is one of a number of foreign dignitaries—including Iranian, Russian and Saudi foreign ministers and United Nations chief Antonio Guterres—to visit Iraq ahead of the milestone. Former President George W. Bush justified the invasion with claims Iraqi dictator Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, though no such weapons were ever found. Hussein’s regime was toppled and U.S. troops remained in the country for years until formally leaving in 2011, though it continued to maintain a military presence afterwards. The war triggered decades of unrest and killed between 185,000 and 208,000 Iraqi civilians, according to the Costs of War Project by Brown University researchers.

Big Number

2,500. That’s how many troops the U.S. currently has stationed in Iraq, according to Reuters. The contingent, in addition to 900 stationed in neighboring Syria, are there to assist and advise local troops fighting the Islamic State. The Islamic State wreaked havoc across Iraq and Syria and seized vast swaths of territory from both countries in 2014. The group was ousted from Iraq in 2017 and ostensibly defeated in 2019, though sleeper cells and surviving elements pose an ongoing threat.

Further Reading

In Syria, Milley Says U.S. Troops Are Still Needed to Counter ISIS (NYT)

Pentagon chief makes unannounced trip to Iraq as 20-year anniversary of invasion nears (Reuters)