The US Secretary of Defense made an unannounced visit to Baghdad

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

Upon landing in Baghdad, Austin was met by Major General Matthew McFarlane, the US commander in Iraq. The defense secretary is expected to meet with senior officials during his visit to Iraq, where hundreds of US troops are stationed to help fight the Islamic State militant group.

Since the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted longtime dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq has been a point of friction between the United States and Iran. Over the past 20 years, Tehran has greatly expanded its influence in Iraq.

Despite being defeated in Iraq in 2017, IS militants and their sleeper cells continue to carry out attacks in the country as well as in neighboring Syria. IS has killed and wounded dozens of Iraqi soldiers in recent months. The United States is calling on countries around the world to return their citizens from the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, which holds tens of thousands of mostly women and children linked to IS. The vast majority of them are Iraqis and Syrians.

In recent weeks, Iraq has repatriated more than 500 women and children from Al-Hola.

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