Top General in Middle East Says U.S. Troop Levels Will Drop in Iraq and Syria

But 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 has begun to grow again.

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.

In March, the Pentagon ordered military commanders to plan for an escalation of American combat in Iraq. But the top American commander in the country warned that such a campaign could be bloody and counterproductive and risked war with Iran.

Since then, the United States has consolidated its troops on fewer bases, a repositioning that General McKenzie acknowledged had diverted resources from fighting ISIS. Separately, the training mission has been suspended for the past several months because of concerns about the coronavirus.

General McKenzie praised the government of the new Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, for its initial efforts to counter Iranian-backed Shiite militias that periodically lob rockets at American troops and personnel, noting that U.S. officials must exercise patience with the new government’s fits and starts.

“We’re trying to do everything we can not to inflame the environment in Iraq,” the general said, in an apparent reference to the killing of one of Iran’s top generals, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, in an American drone strike at Baghdad International Airport in January. That strike enraged many Iraqi parliamentarians, who demanded a complete withdrawal of American troops from the country.

In northeast Syria, American troops are working closely with the Kurdish allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, to combat pockets of ISIS fighters. General McKenzie said the insurgents had been limited to carrying out “local sporadic violence” east of the Euphrates River, territory controlled by American and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

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