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US defense secretary makes unannounced visit to Baghdad

BAGHDAD — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit on Tuesday to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, just days before the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Austin was greeted on touchdown in Baghdad by Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, the U.S. commander in Iraq. The defense secretary is expected to meet top officials during his visit to Iraq, which is home to hundreds of American troops helping in the fight against the militant Islamic State group.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that removed longtime dictator Saddam from power, Iraq has been a point of friction between the United States and Iran. Tehran has widely expanded its influence in Iraq over the past 20 years.

“I’m here to reaffirm the U.S.-Iraq strategic partnership as we move toward a more secure, stable, and sovereign Iraq,” Austin tweeted upon his arrival.

Despite their defeat in Iraq in 2017, IS militants and their sleeper cells are still launching attacks in the country, as well as in neighboring Syria. IS has killed and wounded dozens of Iraqi troops over the past months. The U.S. has been urging countries around the world to repatriate their citizens from al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, which holds tens of thousands of mostly women and children linked to IS. The vast majority of them are Iraqis and Syrians.

Iraq has repatriated more than 500 women and children from al-Hol over the past weeks.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.