US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Iraq on Tuesday on an unannounced visit barely two weeks before the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Austin is slated to arrive in Israel on Wednesday for a two-day visit as part of an overall Mideast tour that also includes stops in Jordan and Egypt.
During his meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman on Sunday, Austin “discussed his concern regarding the escalation in tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” according to the US Defense Department. Austin also thanked Abdullah for hosting the recent Aqaba summit, “which reaffirmed the necessity of de-escalating tensions.”
Upon his departure from Washington, a senior US defense official said that Austin intends to “be quite frank with Israeli leaders about his concerns regarding the cycle of violence in the West Bank and consult on what steps Israeli leaders can take to meaningfully restore calm before the upcoming holidays,” a reference to Ramadan and Passover next month.
Austin and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant spoke via phone two weeks ago, with the US defense secretary calling for taking steps to calm tensions and discussing “joint efforts to calm the area ahead of the holidays.”
Landing in Baghdad on Tuesday, Austin tweeted: “I’m here to reaffirm the US-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable and sovereign Iraq.”
His visit comes ahead of the March 20 anniversary of the ground invasion which ushered in two decades of bloodshed that Iraq is only now beginning to exit. In the run-up, Iraq has hosted a raft of foreign officials, including the Iranian, Russian and Saudi foreign ministers and UN 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 fightback against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group, who overran swaths of northern and western Iraq in 2014. The jihadists were ousted from Iraqi territory in 2017 but retain sleeper cells in desert and mountain hideouts in both Iraq and neighboring 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.