US general sees smaller but enduring troop presence in Iraq

FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2020, file photo Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, top U.S. commander for the Middle East, watches flight operations on board the USS Harry S. Truman in the North Arabian Sea. Six months after a deadly American airstrike in Baghdad enraged Iraqis and fueled demands to send all U.S. troops home, McKenzie is talking optimistically about keeping a smaller, but enduring military presence in Iraq. (AP Photo/Lolita Baldor, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2020, file photo Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, top U.S. commander for the Middle East, watches flight operations on board the USS Harry S. Truman in the North Arabian Sea. Six months after a deadly American airstrike in Baghdad enraged Iraqis and fueled demands to send all U.S. troops home, McKenzie is talking optimistically about keeping a smaller, but enduring military presence in Iraq. (AP Photo/Lolita Baldor, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Six months after a deadly American airstrike in Baghdad enraged Iraqis and fueled demands to send all U.S. troops home, the top U.S. general for the Middle East is talking optimistically about keeping a smaller but enduring military presence there.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, met Tuesday with Iraq's new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and said afterward that he believes the Iraqis welcome the U.S. and coalition troops, especially in the ongoing fight to keep Islamic State militants from taking hold of the country again.

“I believe that going forward, they’re going to want us to be with them,” McKenzie told a small group of reporters, speaking by phone hours after he left Iraq. “I don’t sense there’s a mood right now for us to depart precipitously. And I’m pretty confident of that.”

Tensions spiked between the U.S. and Iraq in January after a U.S. drone strike near the Baghdad airport killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Angry Iraqi lawmakers, spurred on by Shiite political factions, passed a nonbinding resolution to oust all U.S.-led coalition forces from the country.

In response to the Soleimani killing, Iran on Jan. 8 launched a massive ballistic missile attack on al-Asad air base in Iraq, which resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 American troops. Two months later, U.S. fighter jets struck five sites in retaliation, targeting Iranian-backed Shiite militia members believed responsible for the January rocket attack.

President Donald Trump has vowed to bring troops home and halt what he calls America's endless wars. But he has also warned Iran to expect a bold U.S. response if Iranian-backed militias attack Americans in Iraq.

The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, but troops left in 2011. American forces returned to Iraq in 2014, after the Islamic State group began taking over large swaths of the country,

McKenzie last visited Iraq in early February, slipping into the country for a few hours to meet with leaders as anti-American sentiment was soaring and violent protests and rocket attacks were pummeling the American Embassy.