US Defense Chief makes unannounced Iraq visit

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is greeted next to a plane by Major General Matthew McFarlane, during his unannounced trip to Baghdad, Iraq, March 7, 2023. [Reuters]

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday during an unannounced visit to Iraq that U.S. forces operating in the country are focused on supporting Iraqi forces and defeating the Islamic State group, while highlighting the need for security to carry out that mission.

Wheels down in Baghdad. I'm here to reaffirm the U.S.-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable, and sovereign Iraq.

- Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) March 7, 2023

"Our defense cooperation against Daesh is a key pillar of our bilateral relationship, and the United States remains committed to this fight in support of Iraq's security and the security of the entire region," Austin told reporters after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

Austin thanked Iraqi leaders for a commitment to ensuring coalition forces operating in Iraq would be protected from "state and non-state actors."

U.S. forces and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad have been the targets of rocket fire from Iranian-backed militia.

The United States has about 2,500 troops in Iraq with a mission to advise and assist Iraqi troops in the fight against the Islamic State group.

Austin praised Iraq for repatriating Iraqi citizens from detention facilities and displaced persons camps in northeast Syria and encouraged all countries to do the same with their nationals.

The U.S. State Department said last month there were about 10,000 people in the al-Hol and Roj displaced persons camps.

Austin's visit follows one last week by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who pledged "deep solidarity with the Iraqi people and my hope that Iraq will face a future of peace and prosperity and with consolidated democratic institutions."