U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Iraq Tuesday on an unannounced visit barely two weeks before the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
“I’m here to reaffirm the US-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable and sovereign Iraq,” Austin tweeted as he landed in Baghdad.
Austin is the highest ranking cabinet official to visit Iraq since the beginning of the Biden administration.
The stop was kept secret until he landed for security reasons.
He’s in the midst of a multi-nation visit to the region.
Austin’s visit comes ahead of the March 20 anniversary of the ground invasion that ushered in two decades of bloodshed that Iraq is only now beginning to emerge from.
In the run-up, Iraq has hosted a raft of foreign officials, including the Iranian, Russian and Saudi foreign ministers and U.N. chief Antonio Guterres.
Since US-led coalition troops ousted Saddam’s Sunni Arab-dominated regime, Iraq’s Shiite majority has led Iraq under a confessional power-sharing system.
Successive governments have forged close ties with Iraq’s Shiite-led neighbor Iran, while Iraq maintains relations with Iran’s arch foe, the United States, in a delicate balancing act.
Both allies provided extensive support during Iraq’s fight against the Sunni extremists of ISIS, who overran swathes of northern and western Iraq and parts of neighboring Syria in 2014.
The jihadists were ousted from Iraqi territory in 2017 but retain sleeper cells in desert and mountain hideouts in both Iraq and Syria.
Iraq announced the end of combat operations by US-led coalition troops at the end of 2021 but some units remain deployed to provide advice and training.
The U.S. has 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria, the Reuters news agency points out.